Santorum tells Pennsylvanians his 2006 loss was a "great gift"

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum talks with the media after speaking to USAA employees during a campaign stop, Thursday, March 22, 2012, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

Eric Gay

(CBS News) CAMP HILL, Pa. - For Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, it was a bittersweet homecoming to the state he once represented in the House and Senate.

At the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference on a rainy Saturday, Santorum began campaigning in earnest for the state's April 24 primary and reflecting on how his historically large 2006 loss affected his life and career.

He credited his 17-percentage-point loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr., the largest GOP margin of defeat that year, with allowing him to return to the private sector and devote more time to being a husband and father to the seven Santorum children. He maintained that not only did he need to get away from Washington to gain perspective, but that the distance was "a tremendous gift."

"The people of Pennsylvania didn't always give me what I wanted but they always gave me what I needed," he said, recalling what he termed "a painful night" in 2006. "And it was a great, in many respects for me, a great gift to get away, to separate out, to get back and involved in the private sector. I had a little distance from Washington to see what was going on," he said.

Santorum closed his speech to a crowd of several hundred active Pennsylvania Republicans by asking them to give him what he needs this time -- a victory in his home state. "I'm not asking you to help me as a favorite son. I'm asking you to stand up and do it for your sons and daughters so they will be free," he said.

Romney did not go unmentioned by Santorum, who was still toting an Etch A Sketch to highlight comments by a top Romney adviser that the race would be shaken up and reset in the fall. Santorum suggested that Romney's own 17-point loss in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race came because he had remade himself into a candidate he thought would appeal to the state's moderate voters.

"He didn't run as a conservative. He ran to the audience he thought he had to run in front of to win. Etch A Sketch," he said, waving the red plastic toy in his hand. It was a popular riff with the audience here; they had just given Santorum his sole standing ovation for declaring, "Folks, we don't need people who write their public policy in Etch A Sketches."

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul fired back with a statement: "Sen. Santorum is once again showing the desperate lengths to which he will go to salvage his flailing campaign. In 2008, Rick Santorum said, 'If you want a conservative as the nominee of this party, you must vote for Mitt Romney.' Since then, the only thing that has changed is Sen. Santorum's political ambition. No matter how many false attacks he includes in his speeches, Rick Santorum cannot hide from the fact he is an economic lightweight who has zero job creation experience."

At the conference, Santorum worked the rope line with the ease of a man who making a triumphant homecoming, lingering with the participants and greeting many of them by name. It was not until former rival Herman Cain took the podium just a half hour later that it became apparent there was an enthusiasm deficit for the aspiring favorite son. During a seven-minute speech, Cain brought the audience to its feet twice - compared with Santorum's one ovation during his 40 minutes onstage.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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