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Five things to know about Rick Santorum

If history is any guide, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum should be Republican Party's nominee in 2016. After all, the GOP has a history of nominating the runner up from the previous presidential contest, and Santorum was the last person to drop out before Mitt Romney was declared the nominee in 2012.

But if the polls mean anything (and admittedly, they likely mean little at this early stage), the 57-year-old Santorum will be facing the same uphill battle he had in 2012, when he came from behind to win the Iowa caucuses. He currently hovers between 1 and 2 percent in the polls, so far behind some of his potential rivals that he could be excluded from the first 2016 Republican primary debate, hosted by Fox News, which will limit the number of candidates onstage based on their standing in the polls.

But that likely won't stop him from taking another shot at the nomination. He is set to announce his presidential intentions in Butler, Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

And unlike 2012, when he had little competition for the evangelical and social conservative vote, Santorum faces a number of rivals for those voters, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He's already seeing the effects of a more crowded field in the staffers available for hire: Alice Stewart and Hogan Gidley, who handled communications for his 2012 campaign, have returned to work for Huckabee, their boss in 2008. So have Jill Latham Ryan, his former deputy campaign manager, and Nick Ryan who ran Santorum's super PAC in 2012. This time around they're going to work for Huckabee's super PAC. He's also lost his previous campaign manager, Mike Biundo, and national delegate director, John Yob, to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul this year. Even the Duggar family, made famous by TLC show "19 Kids and Counting," has thrown its endorsement to Huckabee's campaign. (The Duggars' support may mean less, given that it's now off the air after oldest sibling Josh admitted that he had molested several girls when he was younger.)

Since losing in 2012, Santorum has been cooling his heels and biding his time for another election. He created a 501(c)(4) group called Patriot Voices for his political advocacy and became CEO of a Christian movie company called EchoLight studios.

Here are five things to know about Rick Santorum:

1. He was Romney's chief rival in 2012 and won the Iowa caucuses:As Republican candidates cycled through the top of the polls in the fall of 2011, Santorum's poll numbers slowly rose as he crisscrossed Iowa ahead of the caucuses. He peaked at just the right time - caucus night itself. Unfortunately for his campaign, the initial results showed Mitt Romney winning by eight votes.

Two weeks later, the Iowa GOP reversed course and said Santorum had actually been the caucus winner by a margin of 34 votes. He believes the delay in announcing his victory changed the whole dynamic of the race.

"Clearly, it would've been different, not just for me, but for Romney," Santorum said in 2013. "As you know, when he won Iowa and then won New Hampshire, it was, 'Oh, it's over. No one's ever won those two and lost the nomination.'"

Ultimately, Santorum did manage to stay in the race until April, which was an irritant to Romney. The two attacked each others' records on spending, taxes, health care and basic integrity, and toward the end, they even sniped at each other over whether Santorum could even win enough delegates for the nomination.

Santorum ultimately won 11 states before dropping out of the race in April and threw his tepid support to Romney.

2. He's a longtime culture warrior:Santorum remains staunchly conservative on every social issue, born largely out of his Catholic faith, and he has also gained some national infamy for those opinions. In a 2003 interview, then-Sen. Santorum likened homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery, but said he didn't want to "pick on homosexuality" because "It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog." The comments prompted gay rights activist Dan Savage to begin a campaign to link his name to a graphic sexual act, and the new "definition" dominated the politician's Google search results for years.

That hasn't changed his views over the years. Santorum actively advocates for defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman and has opposed civil unions for same-sex couples. He also said recently that he would not attend a gay wedding, a question that was put to several GOP candidates and would-be candidates in the last week.

Santorum has not, however, been critical of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic athlete who recently came out on national television as transgender.

"If he says he's a woman, then he's a woman," Santorum told reporters recently. "My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are."

He introduced legislation banning late-term abortion that passed in 2003 and during the 2012 campaign accused President Obama of forcing health insurance companies to include free prenatal testing as a way to weed out and abort disabled children. He also said the president was forcing a "new moral code" that was "intolerant" of the Catholic Church.

3. He's struck a populist tone on economic issues:During the 2012 campaign, Santorum made a concerted effort to win over so-called Reagan Democrats, or the white, working-class Northerners who defected to support former President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. While those voters have largely migrated to the GOP nowadays anyways, Santorum hoped that a message focused on increasing domestic energy production and revitalizing manufacturing would help him edge out his GOP rivals at the time.

He was also very critical of President Obama's push for everyone in America to go to college. Santorum's reaction: "What a snob!"

"There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day who aren't taught by some liberal college professor," he said.

He has been critical of the Republican Party for opposing an increase in the minimum wage, arguing the party needs an "image makeover" to appeal to blue-collar voters.

4. He lost his 2006 reelection bid:2006 was a bad year for Republicans in general, with voters handing control of both the House and Senate back to Democrats. But it was especially bad for Santorum, who lost his bid for a third term in the Senate by a whopping 17 percent.

Santorum ran into trouble because his opponent, then-state treasurer Bob Casey, highlighted his close ties to then-President Bush. A number of Casey's voters were also motivated by their dislike of Santorum's polarizing style.

Prior to his Senate career, Santorum served for four years in the House of Representatives. During his first Senate race in 1994, he benefitted from an anti-incumbent sentiment that year.

5. He has a special-needs daughter:The Santorum family has seven living children, and one, Gabriel, was born prematurely and died shortly thereafter. Rick and Karen's daughter youngest daughter, Isabella (the family calls her Bella), has a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18, which claims the lives of most children within a year of birth.

Bella was hospitalized twice during the 2012 campaign, and Santorum cited his parenting duties as a reason to withdraw from the campaign.

Originally, he didn't even mention his daughter on the campaign trail. Then, when given the instruction to "bare your soul" during a 2011 "Thanksgiving Family Forum" for GOP candidates, he talked about how he convinced himself to try to not love his daughter in her fragile state.

"I decided that the best thing I could do was treat her differently . . . it wouldn't hurt as much if I lost her," Santorum said. "I had seen her as less of a person because of her disability."

It was a powerful moment that captivated the Iowa voters in attendance, and propelled many parents of disabled children to go meet and support Santorum.

In 2015, after the campaign, Rick and Karen Santorum wrote a book called "Bella's Gift: How One Little Girl Transformed Our Family and Inspired a Nation."

In the book, Karen Santorum writes that her husband had "hardened his heart out of fear" after losing Gabriel. "Ever since that day, Bella has had Rick wrapped around her little finger," she said.

Bella has been a source of motivation behind the Santorums' opposition to the Affordable Care Act. They argue that the law will result in disabled people being denied care as a result of health care rationing.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.