The Return of the Native: Santorum Comes Home, But Do Pennsylvanians Still Pick Rick?

115286412 The Return of the Native: Santorum Comes Home, But Do Pennsylvanians Still Pick Rick?BUTLER, PA.—Western Pennsylvania, land of coal, sharp-rising hills, shuttered mines. It is a part of the country that Rick Santorum isn’t so much from; it is a part of the country that Rick Santorum is. It was at the Somerset County courthouse, an hour to the south and east of Pittsburgh, that Mr. Santorum announced that he would run for president. It was to western Pennsylvania that Mr. Santorum’s grandfather had come to escape fascist Italy, spending a lifetime toiling away in the mines—a story that Mr. Santorum has repeated at nearly every campaign stop since that morning on the courthouse steps two years ago.

In speeches, Mr. Santorum rhapsodizes about the area, calling it the perfect place to grow up, telling voters, “I don’t have Wall Street experience, but I have experience growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, growing up in a steel town.”

He learned everything, he says, “growing up with folks who worked in the mills and the mines in western Pennsylvania.”

It was also here the mildly conservative counties around Pittsburgh swung heavily against the Republican in favor of the winner, Democrat Bob Casey. It was a humiliating loss, one of the biggest defeats for an incumbent senator in history.

But Mr. Santorum returned this week—in hopes of keeping his unlikely presidential campaign alive—to the voters who have known him so well, who elected him twice to Congress, and twice more to the U.S. Senate.

Pennsylvania has one of the last remaining troves of delegates, and Mr. Santorum needs to win handily in the April 24 primary to show he has any viability in general election swing states. Lose, and once again the Keystone State sends him home.

The Observer spent five days criss-crossing western Pennsylvania last week, swinging through small towns in Butler County to the wealthy suburbs east of Pittsburgh to see how the people who know Mr. Santorum best feel about a local son hitting the big time.

It was not encouraging. Not once did we see a Santorum for President yard sign, or bumper sticker. No stores on the main streets of the towns Mr. Santorum called home hung photos of him visiting, or wished him well on presidential bid. And few people we spoke with remembered him fondly, or had much hope for a President Santorum one day building his presidential library there.

“The Romney people sense that,” said Jim Roddey, a longtime Pittsburgh power broker and head of the Allegheny County Republican Party. “And they feel they can put a stake in Rick’s campaign here in Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Santorum’s history in western Pennsylvania begins in the town of Butler, when his family moved there in the mid ’60s and stayed until 1974, when Mr. Santorum was a senior in high school. Both of his parents worked at the local Veterans Administration hospital.

In the popular imagination, the town, on the eastern edge of the rust belt, is like a lot of towns caught up in the hollowing out of the nation’s manufacturing base over the past half-century. And the image is, in many ways, a true one: it was 30 years ago this month that the Pullman Standard plant closed, leaving some 3,000 jobless. Others followed. Everyone’s savings, one local told The Observer over lunch one day, went into the church or the bar. In the 1940s, the population of the town of Butler was 24,000; today, it is half that.

Mr. Santorum’s campaign provides a window into how far removed he is from the reality of the part of the world that he extols as defining his character.

On the stump, the senator talks a lot about reviving blue-collar factory jobs, but what saved Butler County was Westinghouse Electric Company moving its nuclear headquarters here from nearby Allegheny County after flirting with a move to South Carolina. A host of high-paid engineers now commute around the county in fancy foreign model cars. And Mr. Santorum has frequently made a point of saying that President Obama was a “snob” for supposedly suggesting that all schoolchildren go to college, and has lambasted the nation’s institutions of higher learning for ingraining a negligence of America’s glorious past in their students, but locals say that higher education has helped save the area around Butler too, with Slippery Rock University and the schools in nearby Pittsburgh expanding at a rapid rate. (Health care, especially for the elderly, is also a big economic driver, and since Main Street seemed to host more smokers than a Roman piazza, this grim reality is unlikely to change.)

It is a place that is unlikely to nurture a politician quite like Mr. Santorum. Politically, most of  Western Pennsylvania is classic Reagan Democrat country, voters who registered Democratic thanks to the union or family ties, but are willing to vote Republican more often than not. In recent years however, registration numbers have been changing too, but the only pols who have been able to succeed here are relatively conservative Democrats or relatively moderate Republicans.

Mr. Santorum’s space on the national stage has been of the fire-breathing conservative, the one who equates Barack Obama’s administration with the fascist dictator his grandparents fled.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania is  a classic battleground,” said Joseph Kuklis, a former Santorum aide and now a political consultant. “This is a traditional core Blue Dog Democratic area. It is full of what we call Reagan Democrats, who are pro-life, pro-gun, Catholic union Democrats who have been taking a leap of faith with the GOP.”

This is not the profile of Mr. Santorum these days, who once compared gay marriage to man-on-dog sex, and said states should be able to ban contraceptives.

“This is a redneck area, but there are a lot of blue-collar people and they don’t go for someone like Santorum,” said Jack Beiler, a retired banker at Mellon and Butler resident and one of the leaders of the local Chamber of Commerce.

He told the story of sitting in a diner on Main Street a few weeks before with some friends, one of whom joked that Mr. Santorum “felt that conception started when he got an erection.”

As voting day approaches Mr. Santorum may find that his problem isn’t so much that voters don’t like him, but that they ignore him and his PA pedigree.

“Bingo!” said Mark Mann, the longtime editor of the Butler Daily Eagle, the local afternoon paper, when asked about the seeming lack of interest in Mr. Santorum. “I have heard zero conversations about Rick Santorum. I haven’t gotten a letter to the editor. No party member—nobody here—has endorsed him.”

Bill Smith, a retired college professor who now owns an antique store, was Mr. Santorum’s Little League baseball coach. It was there that he got the nickname with stuck with him all through his upbringing—“Rooster.”

“His adult mannerisms were beginning to be displayed. He walked around as if he were a rooster—cocky.”

He remembers Mr. Santorum’s father as being one of those “overly enthusiastic” parents—“I think you can fill in those blanks,” he said—said that he hasn’t heard anyone come into the store, or any of his friends and neighbors around speak with much pride about Mr. Santorum’s improbable bid.

“It’s one thing to be a hometown boy—it’s another to be a hometown Republican in a Republican county,” he said. But “even those who are oriented toward the Republican candidates continue to talk about his views, the uber-conservatism on abortion and contraception and all that. He is to the right of Genghis Khan as far as all of that stuff is concerned.”

Elected officials have a way of embodying the areas they represent, almost to the point of stereotype; one could not imagine, for example, somebody as resolutely “New York-y” as Chuck Schumer, or as quintessentially Californian as Jerry Brown, but as Mr. Smith sees it, Mr. Santorum, with his unbridled attacks on Democrats and reporters, and his over-the-top religiosity, is no longer someone whom Pennsylvanians identify with.

“People are really not passionate here, except for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are not particularly passionate Catholic, they are not passionately Protestant, they are not passionately Republican, and they are not passionate Democrats.”

Mr. Santorum’s path out of Butler was typical. Go to a good school get a good job, and get out. After law school at Dickinson, Mr. Santorum landed at Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, perhaps Pittsburgh€™’s premier white-shoe law firm, and moved to Mt. Lebanon, even though as a bachelor he was an outlier in the leafy suburban streets there.

He soon started running for the congressional seat even though it was a heavily Democratic district held by a Democratic incumbent. He tapped in through to the district’s burgeoning evangelical community, enlisting them in his campaign, and wore out a pair of shoes walking the precincts—shoes he held up at his election night party.

“He was really wet behind the ears,” recalls Mr. Roddey, the local GOP chairman. “He didn’t know what he didn’t know.”

After he won, Mr. Roddey said, “He got a little arrogant. After that it was, ‘I told you I could win. None of you supported me.’ Then he got to Congress and he realized how humbling being a freshman was, and he realized he had to go to work.”

He was not then the social warrior he is now. People who have watched him closely over the years say that came later, maybe after the death of his prematurely born son, or perhaps when he began to find that the TV cameras were more interested in his views on those issues than on anything else.

Patricia Lemish, 64 and a retired school teacher, remembers meeting Mr. Santorum out in front a supermarket in Mt. Lebanon during his first campaign. On a cold day in the uptown section of the city, she sports a sweater with American flags stitched onto the sides. She is a Democrat, she says, but voted for Republican Arlen Spector and says, “I haven’t met anyone who likes Rick. He has gotten more and more extreme as times goes on. He is in a class by himself here.”

She adds, “He doesn’t circulate among the regular people.” And she points The Observer towards a nearby tavern where each afternoon a group of rock-ribbed old-guard country club Republicans gather.

They didn’t want their names used—“I came to have a few glasses of wine before picking up my grandkids from school, not get god-damn interviewed,” said one, but all expressed sincere hope that Mr. Santorum doesn’t end up becoming the nominee.

Mr. Santorum’s chief affront—which came up time and time again, on the sidewalks, diners and bars of western Pennsylvania—was moving his whole family to northern Virginia when he was elected to Congress, but continuing to bill Pennsylvania for the cost of home-schooling them.

By leaving, Mr. Santorum turned his back on a part of the world that they stayed in, even as their children and friends moved elsewhere.

“People don’t have fond memories of him because he just was never here,” one said. “He used up his welcome in this state.”

Last night, Mr. Santorum once again returned to his native state, pleading for their support once last time to keep his presidential dreams alive. A poll out yesterday showed him still up six points in the state, although he was up twice that much in a similar poll a few weeks ago. He has said that he “absolutely” will carry his home state, but he first must convince Pennsylvanians that it really is his home.

“It’s interesting,” one of the old-timers at the bar said as he put down his first glass of sauvignon blanc and picked up his second. “He claims this is home, but we don’t really claim him.”

dfreedlander@observer.com