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Politics

To Rick Santorum, it’s 1980 all over again

A number loomed large in Rick Santorum’s remarks Thursday, as he traveled throughout southeastern Iowa seeking to capitalize on polls showing that his support among caucus-goers is surging here in advance of Tuesday.

It wasn’t 16—as in the percentage of voters backing Santorum in a CNN-Time poll this week that sparked the kind of media attention that the candidate has craved for months. It wasn’t three—the slot behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul here that, right now at least, seems to guarantee that a candidate can move on to the later primaries.

It was 1980—and that year is the prism through which Santorum appears to view himself and his role in this election. Again and again, the former Pennsylvania senator directed his audience back to that time, pointing to what he said were unmistakable historical parallels.

That was the year when incumbent President Jimmy Carter was under siege from multiple threats. The economy was sputtering (the nation’s manufacturing base was beginning to crumble), there were long lines at the gas pump sparking fears of energy crisis (the president wore sweaters), and most notably, Iranians had taken 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

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It was also a year that saw, in its earliest stages, a fierce primary battle for the Republican presidential nomination between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. You might recall Bush labeling Reagan’s supply-side tax plan “voodoo economics.”

Flash forward to now. Iran is again emerging in the minds of some as a clear, existential threat, both because of fears it will acquire a nuclear weapon and it’s tough talk recently about closing the Straits of Hormuz . A first-term Democrat in the White House is coping with a rough economy and high gas prices. And Republicans are throwing elbows in Iowa.

Although he was never explicit, it was fairly clear to make out whom Santorum was casting in his passion play.  Obama, of course, is Carter, a comparison that has often been made by critics. Mitt Romney is Bush the elder, cut from the same northeastern Republican stock that makes some queasy about his bona fides. (They even sometimes look alike if you squint a bit.) And Santorum clearly sees himself as a Reagan to the rescue.

Reagan’s mantle has been claimed by just about every other candidate in the race, most notably Newt Gingrich, who’s running ads here promoting his Reagan documentary film, Michele Bachmann, and Romney himself (seeking to quell those conservative worries).

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None however have done it perhaps with the same sort of call-to-arms urgency as Santorum, but no other candidate has made the threat of Iran as central to his campaign as he has. He has long warned of the threat of militant Islam to a degree that same have found overheated.

There is another reason why Santorum might like the parallel. Bush won Iowa, not Reagan—just as Romney is poised to do. Reagan then moved on to take New Hampshire and South Carolina on his way to the GOP nomination and a two-term presidency.

That might be where the comparison ends however. It’s Romney, not Santorum, who looks in a position to win New Hampshire. Much like Mike Huckabee four years ago, Santorum’s best hope would lie with winning conservative South Carolina and using that as a platform to compete in Florida.

A new NBC/Marist poll out Friday reaffirmed what the CNN-Time poll said earlier in the week: Santorum is charging hard, and is competing with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for third place. But the most momentum seems to lie with him.

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If Santorum were to pull a surprise win next Tuesday, it would rank with some of the more recent political upsets of recent times, along with Bush’s upset over Reagan and the time the man he so derides, Jimmy Carter, emerged from nowhere to win here in 1976.

james.oliphant@latimes.com


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