[Guest post by Molly Redden

Today, I wrote about Rick Santorum’s college years, during which he was much less the conservative ideologue than he is today. (Case in point: A friend said he shunned Youth for Reagan as being too “fringe right-wing.”) Instead, according to many of his friends and professors, he was a budding tactician—more interested in making Republican politics “fun” for the non-country-club-going crowd, and in parsing the minutiae of polling data than in proselytizing conservative ideology.

The question then becomes, do his tactical inclinations show up in his political career? I didn’t pursue this question too far into his political career, in part because this 1995 Philadelphia magazine piece by Eric Konigsberg does a pretty good job of it. But Konigsberg’s  piece, which was rediscovered by the Huffington Post, has mostly been passed around on account of this Rick Santorum money quote: “I was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress”—which is a shame, because it’s full of other goodies, like the outsized role Newt Gingrich played in launching the young Santorum to prominence. (Whoops.)

Konigsberg also has a good accounting of Santorum’s first political race, his 1990 Congressional run. Santorum, he writes,mailed fliers to thousands of evangelical Christians in the Pittsburgh area, promising to govern in a method that was “derived from my religious commitment.” The move yielded widespread support among local, conservative religious leaders, and up to 1,000 extra canvassers.

Charlie Kelly, a colleague from Santorum’s years at the law firm Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, told me Santorum’s deliberately pandered to the right to gain those volunteers. “Most people around here who watched that first campaign think his move to the right was fortuitous. It gave him foot soldiers in a door-to-door effort that was essential for him in this race,” Kelly said. “He’s known since his very first campaign how ardent and devoted that sector could be.” Yet the candidate’s courtship of the religious demographic was purely rhetorical: Santorum did not even campaign on any particular religious issue that cycle.

In fact, 1990 is the first year that any of the dozen friends and old colleagues I spoke to can recall Santorum as being particularly religious at all. Some of them also recall his religiosity intensifying after he married Karen Garver, in June of 1990. But even the mailers Santorum sent out seem to acknowledge his renewal of faith was very recent. "Having returned to my church after a period of absence,” he wrote, “I now understand the connection between a personal, vibrant faith commitment and the moral fiber of our nation's needs.”

If Santorum’s turn toward religion was a product of political calculation, it wouldn’t have surprised his friends from the time, who thought of him as a canny political operator. Phil English, a friend of Santorum’s from their undergrad days at Penn State who worked on the campaign, recalled that in that race, Santorum exercised “a real sense of how to draw people into a political organization who weren’t very political.” Sometime after he won the race, Kelly remembers some calculating advice Santorum gave him on being a political star. “Rick suggested that to really move in politics, you move forward through ideology. … That one way to immediately step up to the plate is to not sit around and learn at somebody’s knee as a wonk. You take a position and ride it.”

Of course, today we’re still given to wonder if Santorum the tactician is still alive under Santorum the fire-and-brimstone candidate. Kelly had an answer for that, too.

Just a month before Santorum announced his presidential bid in January of 2011, Kelly ran into him at a PNC Bank breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. At the time, Santorum was spending most of his days in Iowa.

“Think about this,” Kelly recalls Santorum saying. “If I can get 25,000 votes there, I can be president.”

“How about that,” Kelly responded, unsure of what to say.

“How about that!” Santorum grinned.

Kelly recalls, “It was almost like he was saying, ‘What a country!’”