The Daily Caller

The Daily Caller

              Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum accompanied by his wife Karen, left, campaigns at Tommy  Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum accompanied by his wife Karen, left, campaigns at Tommy's Ham House, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)   

In South Carolina, Santorum is in love with the ’90s

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Bruce Barron has Santorum cred: a faded white T-shirt advertising Rick Santorum’s run for Congress in 1990. It’s like something hipsters would buy for $25 at a vintage clothing shop. The tag line, stamped in blue ink, reads “Leadership in touch with you.”

“The slogans have improved since then,” Barron laughed in an interview with The Daily Caller. “Then again, so has the candidate.”

But that tag line may still apply today, and if Santorum pulls off an upset here in Saturday’s primary — he’s currently stuck in fourth place, according to three polls released Thursday — it will be largely due to the same grassroots campaigning that propelled him to a belated win in Iowa.

Indeed, most of the cars in the parking lot outside his campaign office in Greenville, S.C. have Iowa license plates, as volunteers, staffers and Santorum himself seek to duplicate that winning effort.

“It’s not like South Carolina’s gotten the short end of the stick,” Santorum told a crowd at a Wednesday campaign stop, noting the dozens and dozens of events he has conducted in this state, starting back in 2010. Santorum famously visited all 99 Iowa counties and held over 300 town hall events in the Hawkeye State.

That kind of grassroots campaigning started when he first ran for national office in 1990.

Barron, from Pennsylvania, was Santorum’s first press secretary on the 1990 campaign, a volunteer position. “I could write fast and I could type fast, so I was the logical pick,” Barron remembered.

He recalled how no one in the media took Santorum seriously until there were just two weeks left in the race. The 32-year-old was largely ignored because the incumbent, Rep. Doug Walgren, was expected to win re-election in a Democratic-leaning district as he had done six times before. (RELATED: Full coverage of Rick Santorum)

Instead, the Santorum campaign focused on the personal side of politics.

“What we had done was go door-to-door, meeting-to-meeting, call-to-call and built up the support, and suddenly in the last two weeks of the campaign, all these Santorum yard signs popped up all over the district, more than the incumbent’s,” Barron recalled. “The media said, ‘I guess this is a serious race.’”

Santorum hammered Walgren for living in the Washington, D.C. area rather than in his home district, and for rarely visiting Pennsylvania. The attacks succeeded, and Santorum pulled off an upset victory.

“The center of the campaign was to paint the incumbent as out-of-touch with the district,” Barron told TheDC.

Thus the “Leadership in touch with you” slogan.

Barron sees remarkable similarities with the 2012 campaign. Little money? Check. Little media exposure? Check. Low expectations? Check. And yet Santorum, after what many consider to be his strongest debate performance in Charleston Thursday evening, is in striking distance in South Carolina as he aims yet again to be the “in touch” candidate.

And if 2012 does indeed parallel 1990, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is Walgren, Barron said.

“Romney, as far as I can tell, has no grassroots enthusiasm,” he explained. “He has $24 million to spend on robots [for robo-calls]. One person told me that the call actually called her by her first name: ‘Hi, this is Gov. Mitt Romney, Frances.’ It’s amazing technology if you want to be persuaded by robots.”

More than two decades after helping send Santorum to Congress, Barron finds himself volunteering his old boss again, seated at a plastic folding table with a phone and a call list. He takes a five-minute break every hour to clear his head. And like the dozen other volunteers in the campaign’s modest Greenville office just across the street from Bob Jones University, Barron clocks in at 9 a.m. and leaves around 9 p.m. to sleep at a friend’s house in nearby Greer.

“You see the way [Santorum] campaigns even now. He’ll go to Iowa and talk to voters,” Barron said. “He can relate to the average person. That’s very different from somebody, especially on the Republican side, who thinks the way to campaign is to go to big-money people, get a lot of money and spend it on ads.”

Just like in 1990.

Follow Paul on Twitter