Of the two top finishers in the Iowa Republican caucuses, it’s hard to tell who is worse: Mitt Romney, the eight-vote winner, or Rick Santorum.

The sanctimonious Romney earned a shot at the “worst” title through the efforts of his secretive super PAC, Restore Our Future, which blasted Newt Gingrich out of the caucus race with a wave of negative commercials of which Romney claimed no prior knowledge. No knowledge of a huge operation headed by former campaign aides and organized by a lawyer whose firm represents Bain Capital, the investment firm formerly headed by Romney? Hard to believe.

But I’d give the title to Santorum, an extreme right-wing conservative with a long record of close association with Washington lobbyists.

He is the media’s latest darling because of his finish and a postelection speech bragging about his late grandfather, a coal miner: “He ended up continuing to work in those mines until he was 72 years old, digging coal. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone who had died. It was my grandfather. And I knelt next to his coffin. And all I could do—eye level—was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was those hands dug freedom for me.”

The political media, tending to be suckers for sentiment, loved the last six words. Some of the journalists and pundits felt the speech rocketed Santorum to potential presidential class.

It could be helpful in promoting the image Santorum is taking from Iowa into New Hampshire, site of the next contest, and then South Carolina and Florida. It is the image of a blue-collar Pennsylvania guy, a deeply religious Roman Catholic and, according to him, the only candidate who understands working people. The religious side helped him in Iowa. The picture he draws of his working-class roots will be emphasized in New Hampshire, where most people work in occupations such as manufacturing, transportation, education, information and health.

But Santorum’s image is far different from the reality.

Actually, the candidate was a favorite of high-priced and well-connected K Street lobbyists when he served in the Senate from 1995 until his defeat in 2006.

As reported by Nicholas Confessore in the Washington Monthly issue of July/August 2003, each Tuesday Santorum convened a group of lobbyists, all of them Republicans, to discuss putting Republicans into lobbying jobs that previously had been filled by members of both parties. This was the infamous K Street Project, named for the section of Washington that is home to the big lobbyists.

Confessore wrote, “The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs — specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices. Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican — a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. … The underlying theme was [to] place Republicans in key positions on K Street.

“ ‘Everybody taking part was a Republican and understood that that was the purpose of what we were doing,’ says Rod Chandler, a retired congressman and lobbyist who has participated in the Santorum meetings. ‘It’s been a very successful effort.’ ”

Juan Williams, then with National Public Radio, reported that Newt Gingrich launched the project when he became House speaker after the 1994 midterm elections. Williams said Gingrich sought to “harness the influence and money of K Street lobbyists to benefit the GOP leadership. He deputized then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay to make sure Republicans in the House were getting the winners’ share of campaign dollars from K Street and being well-represented on the staffs of major lobbying firms and trade associations. DeLay was joined by conservative movement activist Grover Norquist, former majority leader Dick Armey, … Santorum, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference, as well as others.” On a 2006 broadcast Williams said one supporter was Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who later served three years in prison after pleading guilty to corruption, fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.

“He [Abramoff] played by the GOP leadership’s rules. He contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican members of Congress. He hired staff people from DeLay’s office and family,” Williams said.

After leaving the Senate, Santorum continued his association with lobbying organizations. NBC’s Domenico Montanaro reported last Nov. 16, for example, that Santorum earned $65,000 for legislative consulting from the American Continental Group, a governmental affairs and consulting firm, also known as lobbyists. These past and present associates could finance a campaign that would contrast sharply with the poor-mouth image of Santorum in the Iowa caucuses, riding around in a supporter’s truck.

There’s more to criticize in the Santorum record. He opposes gay marriage, saying marriage is a privilege, not a right. He opposes gays and lesbians being in the military. He equates gay sex with incest. He believes that states have the right to outlaw contraception. He has singled out blacks when talking of recipients of government aid. All this would please the conservatives whose support he is seeking.

What won’t please them is his association with his lobbyist pals and employers or the K Street Project. Nor will they like it if the Romney ad team links the project with Abramoff. That’s not the blue-collar image Santorum will try to portray in New Hampshire and then in the big contests in South Carolina and Florida.

But it’s probably the image that will be shown in the ads financed and produced by Mitt Romney’s deadly PAC, Restore Our Future. In the next few weeks, Restore Our Future will care more about destroying Rick Santorum’s future than “restoring” ours. Santorum, calling on old K Street friends for money, probably will reply in kind.

Mitt and Rick. They deserve each other.

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