LINCOLN PARK, Mich.— Last Thursday night, Rick Santorum’s campaign sent out a routine notice of the candidate’s schedule for the next day. It said that on Friday evening Santorum would “hold a rally in Lincoln Park, Mich.”
Twelve hours later, the campaign sent out another notice, this one under the heading MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT. It said that on Friday evening — same time, same location — Santorum would “unveil his agenda for the first 100 Days Economic Freedom Agenda of the Santorum Administration.” Just like that, an everyday campaign appearance was re-cast as a major policy speech.
It certainly didn’t seem like a major occasion. The Santorum event was at the Robert H. Jones Knights of Columbus Council #3078 in an area residents call “downriver,” a gritty, blue-collar area along the Detroit River south of the city’s center. The event looked hastily arranged; as starting time approached, perhaps 150 people were there, and much of the meeting hall remained empty throughout.
Most people seemed to have gotten word about Santorum’s appearance just a couple of hours before it started. David Hollobaugh, the grand knight of the Knights of Columbus hall, found out he would be introducing Santorum about four that afternoon. He decided to keep it short and sweet, although when he led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, he made one small addition: “with liberty and justice for all — born and unborn.”
The podium was bare-bones, with no teleprompter. When Santorum arrived, he delivered a 55-minute speech outlining his economic agenda completely without notes. At this stage in the campaign, a candidate can deliver a basic speech blindfolded — but still, 55 minutes is a lot. Santorum covered the economic landscape: jobs, manufacturing, gas prices, regulation, housing, health care. (On Monday, Santorum published a more concise version of the speech in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.)
He spoke about the area he once represented in Pittsburgh and how it has bounced back from a devastating decline in the steel industry. And despite a pretty hefty income in recent years, Santorum spoke as one of them, revealing that he is underwater on the mortgage for his home near Washington.
“The value of my house is a fraction of what it was when I bought it,” he said.
Talks with a dozen or so people at the rally suggested that most identified strongly with Santorum’s social conservative views. But they were on board for his economic plan, too. As The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney has noted, most economic conservatives are also social conservatives, and vice versa. They differ in the relative importance they assign to each issue, but don’t strongly disagree with each other on much.
In Lincoln Park, people were grateful that Santorum would come to a working-class, mostly Democratic corner of the state. “It’s very blue, but lots of good family values,” said Cindy Kallgren of Trenton. “It’s just so appreciated that he would come here, because he’s not going to get a lot of money down here, and he’s not going to get the accolades from the local media.”
But the bottom line was, in the critical days leading up to the Michigan primary, Santorum spent a lot of time talking at a hastily-arranged event that drew a very small crowd. Asked about it later, Santorum explained that he had originally planned to spend Friday out of state. Then, with the Michigan race close — and with Romney threatening to get all the days’ attention with his own economic speech — Santorum made a late decision to head back.
“Our feeling was, what can we do about the first 100 days to bracket Gov. Romney’s speech that day,” Santorum explained. “We had 24 hours and we did the best we could in a not-particularly-Republican area of the state.”
Santorum explained that he wanted to “pick a blue-collar area, to do it not in front of the executives in Detroit but go into the working-class suburbs.”
If the goal was mostly to counter Romney, perhaps Santorum shouldn’t have troubled. Romney’s much-anticipated speech didn’t make the desired impression; much of the press coverage focused on the odd setting of the event, near the end zone of an otherwise-deserted Ford Field in downtown Detroit. Romney’s message — an update on the extensive economic plan he first rolled out last September — wasn’t earthshaking.
So Romney had problems of his own. But perhaps most of all, the day’s events showed the degree to which Santorum, the unlikely contender with little staff and little organization, is winging it in this campaign.
Byron York, The Examiner’s chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.