Rick Santorum Returns - And Eyes The White House

FILE - In a Saturday Feb. 20, 2010 file photo, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File) AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
Rick Santorum wants back in the game.

Four years ago, the two-term Pennsylvania senator lost his reelection bid by a whopping 18 points, the worst loss for a sitting senator since before Ronald Reagan became president.

With that loss, Santorum -- a staunch social conservative who had become a target of the left for his role in divisive debates over issues such as homosexuality and evolution -- faded from the national scene.

This year, however, Santorum has been not-so-quietly laying the groundwork for a return to an even bigger stage: The 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.

Santorum, a Fox News contributor, raised more than $700,000 through his Political Action Committee in the second half of 2009, with most of that money going to direct mail solicitations designed to build a conservative base of support and national profile. He has already traveled to key early primary states, and in a January letter to supporters stated flatly that he is "actively considering the 2012 race."

The author of "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good," Santorum might seem an odd candidate for the current moment. He's remembered far more for his commitment to social issues than the concerns about the country's fiscal problems animating the Tea Party movement.

But somewhat under-the-radar, Santorum has kept his profile up among conservatives via op-eds and a Friday guest-hosting gig on Bill Bennett's radio show. He now "sees an opening for someone who can unite the various primary factions -- economic libertarians, party establishment types and cultural conservatives," according to CBS News Chief Political Consultant Marc Ambinder.

Santorum will likely seek to position himself as "a true-blue, reliable social conservative who proved his conservatism in the Senate," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report. "He can argue he won in Pennsylvania, which is not normally predisposed to support conservatives, so that proves his abilities."

There are those for whom Santorum is -- literally -- a dirty word. Back in 2003, the senator gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he referenced polygamy, incest and "man on dog" sex in a conversation about homosexuality, setting off a firestorm of anger on the left. Journalist, sex advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage held a contest to get readers to come up with a new meaning for "santorum" -- the winning, easy-to-Google entry associates the conservative senator's name with a certain kind of sexual intercourse.

(AP)
In an interview, Santorum said he was hurt by the reaction to his comments and insisted he had been mischaracterized. His interviewer, he said, had engaged in a "hatchet job" that clouded the fact that he was simply making a legal argument that "if the court created a right that sexual activity was all based on consent, then consent can be consent to do anything." Santorum said his focus was not on gay sexual activity specifically, and went on to stress his work to fight AIDS worldwide.

(In an e-mailed statement, Associated Press Media Relations Manager Jack Stokes said, "Our story was accurate then, and it has withstood the passage of time." You can see a transcript of the interview here.)

That isn't to say Santorum, a strong opponent of same-sex marriage, has exactly changed course. But he does seem to want to avoid controversy. Asked about his position on homosexuality, Santorum said, "I have no problem from a public policy point of view with homosexuality."

Asked about his personal feelings on the subject, Santorum said, carefully, "I have personal feelings on a lot of things." He added that people have a right to do what they want in the privacy of their own home. "There are things that people do that I think are good, there are things that are bad, that really doesn't matter much," he stated.

Savage said in an e-mail that Santorum's comments from the 2003 AP interview were rightly interpreted "as specifically and viciously homophobic."

"In the Senate, Rick Santorum called banning gay marriage 'the ultimate homeland security issue,' essentially arguing that the existence of gay couples and gay families represented a threat to the safety and security of the nation," said Savage.

Savage criticized Santorum for now stressing his work on global AIDS, which he called a largely-straight epidemic that anti-gay politicians use to mask their anti-gay sentiments.

"I don't expect a lot from Rick Santorum, but I'm saddened to see that he lacks the courage of his own bigoted convictions," he said.

Santorum comes across as sincere in his beliefs in person. Asked at a conservative conference earlier this month why he backed Arlen Specter over the more conservative Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate primary, he said he made a hard decision grounded in his opposition to abortion.

Specter, Santorum said, had agreed he would support then-President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees no matter what, and Santorum wanted to make sure the court was as conservative as possible. (Specter denies this assertion.)

"You questioned my judgment, and you have every right to do so," Santorum said. "But please don't question my intention to do what's right for those little babies."

Still, the decision to back Specter -- who is now a Democrat -- won't help Santorum in his quest to emerge as a viable alternative to the two expected entrants to the GOP primary field, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, along with whoever else takes the plunge.

Santorum now calls himself a "tea party person" who regrets that he and his colleagues voted for the 2003 Medicare prescription drug legislation without making sure it was paid for.

And while he hits all the notes one might expect from a conservative GOP presidential aspirant -- he strongly opposes the health care bill and says President Obama has damaged the economy and taken steps to "weaken our national security position" -- Santorum is not incapable of surprising those who expect an unblinking commitment to orthodox conservatism. Asked how he's changed since he lost his reelection bid, Santorum said he had become more open to "a lot more of the alternative energy types of things."

"I'm now of the opinion that anything that produces energy within the United States, given the global conflict that we're in, is something I'm for," he said. While he still believes in drilling for oil and fossil fuels, Santorum said, he's "open to other stuff," including creating incentives for bio-fuel production.

(AP Photo/John Heller)
At the same time, Santorum has resisted leftward drift when it comes to the controversial social issues that once made him such a prominent target. Asked about his position on evolution, Santorum requested a definition of the term more than once; he then suggested that the question actually concerned "Darwinism."

"Look, I believe that we were created by God," Santorum said. "That we have a soul. Now, if you can square that with evolution, fine. I don't know. I'm not an expert in evolution. What I can say is that I believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, that we have a soul, and that we are not just a mistake. A mutation. I think we are something that God put on this earth, and have a divine spark, as Abraham Lincoln said."

"My feeling is the bottom line is I think it's important for society to understand that we are not just animals," he added. "…if we are just animals, and we're no different than any other animal out there, then the world is a very different place. And our expectations of others are very different. And I don't think it's true. And I don't think it's healthy."

Santorum's best hope in a 2012 run for the White House may be to position himself as some combination of Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio -- someone (like Huckabee) socially conservative enough to win over Iowa caucus-goers and (like Rubio) fiscally conservative enough to excite the Tea Partiers fed up with the traditional GOP.

If he ultimately does enter the race, according to Rothenberg, he won't be able to get by on name recognition. Whether he can make a splash will depend in large part on whether he can find his niche once the primary field takes shape.

"My guess is most people around the country don't really remember Rick Santorum," Rothenberg said. "He starts pretty far back in the pack, and he'd have to really commit to it."

Santorum clearly has the desire to do just that. Asked why he might run, he said Republicans need a standard bearer who has "stood and they've fought" for what makes America great.

"They didn't always win," he said. "But they've fought for those things."
by Brian Montopoli

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