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A Former Senior Senate GOP Leader Is Ready for a Comeback. Who Knew?

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He’s looking a little tan, sounding rested and signaling he’s ready. He’s a former senator from a big swing state who was a senior member of the congressional leadership. He was even the runner-up for his party’s presidential nomination last cycle.  

So where is Rick Santorum these days? Not only has he not cleared the 2016 field, he isn’t even close to cracking the top ranks of potential Republican candidates. Myriad events — some readily apparent, others currently unimaginable — will shift the shape of the jumbled and sprawling GOP field many times before the actual voting starts almost a year from now. One of the set pieces is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which lasts through Saturday.  

Santorum is among 15 potential candidates scheduled to speak — he’s got 20 minutes starting at noon Friday, sandwiched between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush — and how he’s received by the party’s most conservative and libertarian activists will offer a decent clue about whether his comeback bid stands a chance.  

For now, the numbers suggest Santorum is as much of a long shot as he appeared to be four years ago, when he was running for president the first time. His support among GOP voters, based on an average of the past four national surveys by Real Clear Politics, stands at 2.3 percent — tied for 10th place with Bobby Jindal, the governor and former House member from Louisiana.  

Probably more concerning for Santorum is the fact he’s averaged 5 percent in the last quartet of polls of potential Iowa caucus attendees, leaving him in eighth place. But it was his late surge from obscurity to a victory in Iowa three years ago (he edged Mitt Romney by a miniscule 34 votes) that propelled him into that year’s top tier. Before dropping out in April, he had won 10 additional states, 3.9 million primary or caucus votes and 234 pledged convention delegates.  

It’s not unreasonable to assume that, if he’s going to be a real contender next year, he’ll have to begin by making lightning strike twice in the opening contest, where his type of social conservatism has particular resonance among caucus-goers. He’s spent more than 10 days this year in Iowa — still sporting his trademark sweater vest — and has also made a couple of visits to gauge support in South Carolina, home of the other early contest next year where the culture wars especially resonate.  

In recent appearances and interviews, Santorum is signaling that his strategy assumes the conservative GOP base remembers his social views, allowing him to downplay his opposition to abortion and gay rights while concentrating on selling his conservative economic populism: Too many immigrants, legal and illegal, and too much federal regulation in areas from education to the environment, are holding back economic advancement for the middle class.  

“We have to be not just the pro-growth, but the pro-worker party,” he said on Fox News last month, reprising a 2012 theme he hopes has more currency in the current electoral climate, where there’s bipartisan frustration with income inequality. “We need to target policies that make sure everybody, low-income folks in all income groups and ethnicities, has a shot at the American dream.”  

He’s also said his grounding for the presidency is superior to others hoping to be the candidate of evangelicals and other social conservatives, namely former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.  

To those who spend their lives on Capitol Hill, Santorum’s congressional résumé sounds tough to beat, delivering a breadth and depth of both foreign and domestic policy experience few 2016 rivals can match. He was on Ways and Means while representing the Pittsburgh suburbs for four years in the House, and during the following dozen years as a Pennsylvania senator he not only was chairman of subcommittees on Finance, Armed Services and Agriculture, but also spent six years heading the GOP conference — the No. 3 elected party leadership job, which put him in charge of shaping the messaging for his caucus.  

(To be sure, the bottom line on that résumé also includes one of the most lopsided defeats of an incumbent senator in modern times. He took an 18-point, 708,000-vote drubbing from Democrat Bob Casey in 2006, at least in part because Santorum made a vigorous and often adversarial social conservatism a hallmark of his tenure representing an ideologically mixed state.)  

Since his last presidential campaign, Santorum has taken the helm of a Christian film production and distribution company, EchoLight Studios, and worked to expand the reach of Patriot Voices, the grass-roots advocacy group he created using lists of small-money donors and volunteers from 2012. (Its political action committee raised and spent $2 million during the midterm cycle. Its most recent project was a petition drive to protest President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.)  

Last year he published “Blue Collar Conservatives,” a manifesto for his putative campaign. And last week, he and his wife, Karen, published “Bella’s Gift,” about rearing the youngest of their seven children, Isabella, who has a usually fatal genetic disorder and whose medical challenges pulled Santorum off the trail several times in 2012.  

Perhaps as important as all that, Foster Friess, a mutual fund mogul who donated more than $2 million to a Santorum super PAC last time, has promised to help bankroll him again and to rally financial support from other conservative millionaires.  

Santorum’s party has a deep history of giving their presidential nod to the “guy next in line.” Six of the seven non-incumbent Republican nominees in the past half century had finished second in a previous national campaign. (Starting with Richard M. Nixon in 1968, the only exception is George W. Bush in 2000.)  

From the outside, anyway, it looks as though Santorum has been doing all the groundwork necessary to keep that amazing streak intact. All that remains now is getting the Republican base to start noticing.  

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