Rick Santorum launches presidential exploratory committee

Rick Santorum. CBS

Rick Santorum.
CBS

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has launched a presidential exploratory committee, clearing the way for him to appear at the first debate for 2012 Republican contenders on Thursday evening.

"I am pleased that we have taken this important next step in the process to potentially become a candidate for President of the United States," he said. "The debate this Thursday is a unique opportunity to put forth ideas and solutions to bring our economy back on track, and with Osama bin Laden's death, I look forward to also discussing in depth ways to tackle our many national security challenges."

Santorum needed to file his exploratory committee to qualify for the debate, and he came in just under the deadline to do so. He is expected to appear on the debate stage with Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Herman Cain. Mitt Romney, who is eligible, is declining to participate.

Santorum, who announced the committee on Sean Hannity's radio show, is an outspoken social conservative who served two terms in the Senate before losing his seat in 2007. A target of the left for his statements on homosexuality (among other issues) while in office, Santorum has largely stood by his positions as he has sought a political comeback. He hopes to win over the socially-conservative Republican primary electorate in key early states of Iowa and South Carolina, where Thursday's debate will be held.

In an interview with CBS News last week, Santorum complained that President Obama "doesn't believe America is exceptional."

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