MANDEVILLE, La. — Rick Santorum was late. The audience was a little restless, drowning out a tea party activist lauding the Republican presidential contender.
But then came Camille and Haley Harris, young sisters who are the Christian folk-pop duo First Love from Tulsa, Okla. They sang their newest song. It’s about Santorum. That’s right. Santorum has a theme song.
“Game on. Join the fight,” the sisters, radiant and exuberant, sang to a jangly, upbeat tune; touting his insistence that God, not government, bestows rights; his devotion to the Constitution, his promise of “justice for the unborn” and his commitment to bring “factories back on our shores.” “We’ve finally got a man who will stand for what is right.”
The Harris sisters quizzed the crowd of hundreds, many of them members of the Northshore Tea Party, on the former Pennsylvania senator’s views. No one suggested he was the best candidate to fix the economy or even to drill, baby, drill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Someone said, ‘God is our spiritual hope and Rick Santorum is our political hope.’ And I really think he’s our hope for America, so I hope you guys agree with me,” Camille Harris said before launching into “the Rick Santorum song” a second time. “I just want to get you guys, you know, thinking about what Rick Santorum really stands for, not just what the media says.”
That Camille and Haley Harris wrote a song about Santorum and have joined him on the campaign trail captures the devotion he inspires in conservative Christians, who propelled him from the back of the field to Mitt Romney’s main obstacle. In Louisiana, Santorum is again in Santorum country, a state where evangelical Christians and tea partyers will dominate Saturday’s primary, as they did in Alabama and Mississippi, which Santorum won.
But the packed Fleur de Lis Event Center in Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish, a Republican stronghold, also highlighted Santorum’s struggle to broaden his support beyond conservatives focused largely on social issues. Voters who talked about Santorum invariably praised his personal values, mentioning his home-schooled children and his beliefs as a traditional Catholic.
That’s primarily what drew Larry and Andree Laubscher. “To me, he just comes across as being very honest and very real,” said Larry, 62. “He doesn’t give sound bites,” added Andree, 63, who noted that they are also Catholic. “He’s a true Catholic, not a phony Catholic.”
Santorum doesn’t have the money to help him make his name a household one. (Some supporters still mispronounce it as “Sanitorium.”) But now he has a song. The video the Harris sisters uploaded to YouTube more than two weeks ago has more than 1 million hits. And they are not the only Christian stars traveling with Santorum. The Duggar family, featured in the show “19 Kids & Counting,” joined him in Iowa and are still shadowing him in their bus, showing up Friday at the Ouachita Parish sheriff’s shooting range.
Santorum’s campaign sought out backdrops that showcased his positions, but also suggested he was the blue-collar candidate in the GOP race. He spoke in front of oil-well equipment, filleted fish from the Gulf and plugged a target with a semiautomatic handgun. He didn’t bother with the Big Easy, though. As Santorum has made clear with his outspoken opposition to birth control, he’s not really a “laissez les bons temps rouler” kind of guy.
Santorum stumped in an open-collared shirt, a dark suit and black cowboy boots. He seems to have misplaced his sweater vests, which were his lucky talismans. They also softened his image, emphasizing the 53-year-old’s relative youth and affability — attributes that could help him in contests next month in Wisconsin and the Northeast, including his home state, Pennsylvania.
But in Louisiana, Santorum does not need to tone down his image. Polls suggest he will win. As the last Deep South state to vote, Louisiana could also help Santorum decisively marginalize former Georgian Newt Gingrich. But it will do little to back up his assertion that he can expand his support base beyond churchgoers and tea partyers.
Santorum, however, has recently trod lightly on religion and social issues. In Louisiana, he left those issues to the Harris sisters and others. At a church in Baton Rouge, he was introduced by a fiery minister whose words might help Santorum among some GOP voters, but hurt him with moderates. “If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I have one thing to say: Get out!” the preacher shouted, saying Americans worship God and Jesus Christ, not Buddha or Allah. Santorum later said he believed in freedom of religion.
Thankfully for Santorum, that viral video was quickly supplanted by the next one, a gaffe committed by a top Romney adviser who delivered a pithier version of the former senator’s criticism of the front-runner. The aide said, memorably, that Romney’s views could be erased like an Etch A Sketch for the general election campaign.
Santorum blamed a blinding cloudburst for delaying him on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway on his way to Mandeville. He didn’t mention that he’d also made an unscheduled stop at a Toys R Us to buy a newly crucial campaign prop: an Etch A Sketch. Four of them, actually.
But Santorum is not immune to missteps. Before the Illinois primary, he said the unemployment rate “doesn’t matter to me” as he stressed that his campaign was about more fundamental issues. On Thursday, he made the heretical suggestion among Republicans that the country “might as well stay with what we have,” keeping President Barack Obama, if Romney is the party’s nominee.
After twice emptying a Colt .45 into a target in West Monroe on Friday and suggesting it was a good way “to get those juices flowing in the morning,” Santorum tried to squelch those stumbles. He put the unemployment rate first in his list of big issues and said, “I’m going to support whoever wins the Republican primary to beat Barack Obama. That’s the No. 1 issue.”
He sharpened his theme, portraying Obama and Romney as wrong on health care, global warming and the Wall Street bailout. “There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference,” Santorum said, arguing that Romney will say anything to get elected. “Here in Louisiana, you can speak out loudly that we don’t want just something a little better than Barack Obama.”
Earlier in the week, he visited Harlon’s LA Fish in Kenner to talk with leaders in the seafood business. He confidently filleted a black drum, red drum and sheepshead. (The real-life fish-cutters near the would-be president were equipped with useless butter knives at the request of Secret Service agents.) How did the former senator do? “Pretty good. Pretty good. He’s learning,” said owner Harlon Pearce, a Republican who said he became a Santorum convert after the event because he was impressed by the candidate’s “genuineness.”
Santorum began that day in Harvey, at Superior Energy Services, an international company with 17,000 employees that works on drilling rigs. He spoke in front of a rack of pipes, assailing “the two-letter energy policy of this administration, and, of course, the two letters are N-O, not for New Orleans.”
Matthew Brumley, a 30-year-old security guard from a military family, is the kind of voter Santorum is trying to reach — one focused more on the economy than on religious values. “He would be a hard U-turn from the politics we have now,” he said at the event. “I feel like with his track record, I can trust what he says.”
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