Can Republican political ad whiz John Brabender save Rick Santorum from himself? Maybe. Senator Rick has carefully waded through political minefields in recent years, but not carefully enough. Wherever he steps, you can hear "BOOM."
He compares the Democratic Party to Hitler on the Senate floor. BOOM. He shows up at Terry Schiavo's hospice to grandstand when polls show most people thought it was none of Congress' business. BOOM. He backs Bush's unpopular Social Security private accounts sham. BOOM. He gets a tax break on his western Pennsylvania home that you're only supposed to get if you live here. He doesn't. BOOM. He sends his kids to cyber-school, which you can only do if you live here. He doesn't. BOOM. He compares being gay to bestiality with his infamous "man on dog" comments.
And how about the obvious potential anti-Santorum political ads to come? The man who once challenged an incumbent Congressman for not living in his district will have some 'splainin' to do. Or what about a potential whisper campaign, featuring accusations that this guy and his family are borderline strange? The Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story on Santorum revealed he brought the corpse of his baby (named Gabriel), who died two hours after an emergency delivery in Karen Santorum's 20th week of pregnancy, home. He brought it home so the other kids, ages six, four and one-and-a-half, could see it. According to the Washington Post, "They spent several hours kissing and cuddling Gabriel with his three siblings."
Google "Santorum" and "miscarriage" and you come up with Web sites like Snopes.com, featuring reader comments like "Yeesh. Call me intolerant, but a family spending several hours fondling an infant's corpse is not sweet or loving. It is CREEPY."
Which brings us back to Santorum's ad guy, Brabender, who correctly points out that the "creepy" issue won't be raised -- at least not overtly -- by Santorum's likely opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. "It's dangerous to go after any candidate's family," Brabender says.
Brabender thinks what I call the "right-wing-nut issue" will be defused by some of Casey's more conservative positions, such as being pro-life. While Casey objected to the Senate intervention in the Schiavo case, he has indicated he would have voted as Santorum did, for the judges to take another look at the case. From what I can tell, if you liked the Bush-Kerry race, you'll love the Santorum-Casey contest. Brabender will essentially say that Tricky Ricky is what he is, but at least you know where he stands, whereas Casey says one thing in Washington and another in Pennsylvania. Hmmmm ... sound like a flip-flopper to you?
Brabender claims Casey has "given assurances he'll vote with [Senate Democrats] on critical pro-choice issues." So, the Santorum camp will say, Casey's a hypocrite.
Brabender is good. His clients have included Jim Roddey, and Mike Fisher locally, and nutbags like Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn nationally. He has consulted for the Bush White House. He famously humanized Rick Santorum in a VH-1 style "pop-up" ad which somehow made Rick rolling around on the lawn with his kids seem not too corny.
But can he save Rick Santorum from himself? "People have to understand that Rick Santorum isn't sitting around for somebody like me to be telling him what to say and shouldn't say," Brabender says. Santorum may take some unpopular positions, says Brabender, but he doesn't blow with the wind (again, another Bush theme). "Of all the candidates I've worked with, he's the least poll-crazy candidate I've ever seen." Then maybe he doesn't mind the Quinnipiac poll that shows Santorum down 14 points to Casey at this very early stage of the game.
The reason I don't think even the very talented Brabender can save Rick from himself with this Bush strategy is that Bush may be dumb, but he's not crazy. Dumb, people can excuse, but if Casey's ads reinforce the notion that Rick's a little "out there," that could hurt.
I asked Brabender if he'd bet me a dollar on this race. He said he'd bet a lot more than a dollar. I intend to take him up on it.