Rick Santorum's last-minute surge in the Iowa caucus brought him neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney in the first contest of the 2012 race to select a Republican presidential candidate. But it came too late to attract the harsh scrutiny usually visited on front-runners.
Only in recent days have questions emerged about his stand on abortion, his votes in Congress, and his endorsements of Romney over John McCain in 2008, and Senator Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004.
If rival candidates decide to go negative on Santorum, as they have on Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, they have plenty of material with which to work.
Santorum is beloved among "values voters" for his stand on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. But his record is rich in polarizing policy positions and questionable associations that support the contention that he is a Washington insider.
For example, his million-dollar-plus 2010 income included payments from a lobbying firm, an energy company engaged in controversial "hydrofracking," and a hospital conglomerate that was sued for allegedly defrauding the federal government.
"The spotlight is blinding, and if you squint or stumble even slightly, it gets even more intense," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign consultant who now heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California. "Santorum hasn't faced it yet, but it's about to hit him in a huge way."
Santorum says he's ready. "This isn't my first rodeo. I've been in tough races," Santorum said Monday in Iowa. "I've had the national media crawling up anywhere they could crawl . . . It's not going to be fun."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry fired an opening salvo last weekend, charging that Santorum, 53, was a big spender in Congress who voted to raise the debt ceiling and approved such pork-barrel projects as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, a tea pot museum in North Carolina and an indoor rain forest in Iowa.
Santorum, a lawyer with working-class roots, was 32 when he was elected to Congress in 1990 from a western Pennsylvania district. He served two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate. He served two senate terms from 1995-2007, before losing his seat in a landslide.
Santorum declined to comment for this article, but he has defended his earmarks on other occasions. "Congress appropriates money," Santorum told "Good Morning America" this week. "That is what Congress is supposed to do."
As a senator, Santorum went further, playing a key role in an effort by Republicans in Congress to dictate the hiring practices, and hence the political loyalties, of Washington's deep-pocketed lobbying firms and trade associations, which had previously been bipartisan.
Dubbed "the K Street Project" for the Washington street that houses most of these groups, the initiative was launched in 1989 by lobbyist Grover Norquist, who said his sole aim was to encourage lobbying firms to "hire people who agree with your worldview, not hire for access."
But the rubric "K Street Project" came to encompass the entire climate of cozy cooperation between Republicans and lobbyists.
When Republicans won control of the House in 1994, Majority Leader Tom Delay and others organized regular meetings with lobbyists that reviewed K Street job openings with an eye toward filling them with party loyalists, who would in turn steer support and donations to the members.
By 2001, Sen. Santorum also was holding one-hour breakfast meetings with lobbyists on alternating Tuesday mornings at 8:30 a.m.
In 2004 he denied being involved with Norquist's effort to staff K Street. But Santorum convened Senate Republicans to discuss the appointment of Democrat Dan Glickman as head the Motion Picture Association, according to Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill.
"Yeah, we had a meeting, and yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street. I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it's important for leadership to pay attention," he told the paper at the time.
In 2006, as the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to jail unfolded, Santorum said he was ending the breakfasts in his conference room. However, his staff confirmed to Washington newspapers that they resumed almost immediately, on the same day and at the same time, at a location off the Capitol grounds.
Abramoff never attended Santorum's breakfasts. "I was focused on the House," he told Reuters. Yet the mushrooming scandal about Abramoff's activities cast a harsh light on all aspects of the lobbyist huddles on Capitol Hill.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal government watchdog group, named Santorum among three "most corrupt" Senators in 2005 and 2006, accusing him of "using his position as a member of Congress to financially benefit those who have made contributions to his campaign committee and political action committee."
The blowback from the K Street Project contributed to Santorum's crushing 18-percentage-point defeat in his 2006 re-election bid. His image as a conservative firebrand who made polarizing comments about abortion, gays and single mothers played a role as well, as did Santorum's full-throated support of the war in Iraq.
A few weeks after he left Congress, although his law license had expired, Santorum landed a job in the Washington office of Pittsburgh-based law firm Eckert Seamans. Lawyers at the firm had given Santorum 45 political contributions totaling $24,400 while he was in Congress, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
As senator, Santorum "was a friend of the firm," said Timothy Ryan, Eckert Seamans' chief executive officer. Santorum helped make introductions and did other "relationship work," including providing Eckert Seamans' clients with business and strategy counseling, Ryan said.
Since then, thanks to his political contacts, Santorum has cobbled together a comfortable living as a political pundit, policy advocate and corporate consultant. His 2010 financial disclosure form shows that the self-described "grandson of a coal miner" earned at least $900,000 that year:
- Fox News paid him $239,153 to appear as an occasional contributor.
- Radio Salem paid him $83,999 to serve as a guest host on "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" radio show.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer paid him $23,000 as a freelance columnist.
- The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, paid him $217,385 as a senior fellow.
Santorum also collected a total of $332,500 in consulting fees from three corporations:
- $65,000 from the American Continental Group lobbying firm
- $142,500 from Consol Energy
- $125,000 from the Clapham Group, a Virginia-based corporation started by longtime Santorum staffer Mark Rodgers. On its website, Clapham says its mission is to "influence culture upstream of the political arena."
"Rick's been around Washington for quite some time," American Continental President David Urban said. "When he looks at the tea leaves, he may see things differently than others. We'd chat about which way different pieces of legislation might be heading. He is a very bright guy so I paid for his insight, and he's a friend, someone whose advice I could trust."
American Continental represents Microsoft, the American Gaming Association, Monsanto, and the Association of Mortgage Investors among others.
A Consol Energy representative said the company "engaged Senator Santorum to provide strategic counsel on a variety of public policy-related issues."
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