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Rick Santorum Undeterred by Debate Format

Rick Santorum speaks to reporters Monday at the Monitor Breakfast. (Courtesy of Bryan Dozier/The Christian Science Monitor).

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is at risk of being excluded when the presidential primary debates kick off next month, but that doesn't mean he's worried about his chances in 2016.  

“I don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to things that go on this far ahead of a national vote,” the Republican White House hopeful told reporters Monday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. The source of his optimism was his past performance, which he cited frequently while fielding questions: Santorum defeated two incumbents in congressional elections, once in a 1990 House race and again for Senate in 1994; he said he is “the only person in the field that has any real experience having gone toe-to-toe with the Clinton Machine” during his time in the Senate; and he carried nearly a dozen states in the 2012 GOP presidential nomination fight before dropping out in mid-April, ahead of the primary in his home state.  

Of course, the field in 2016 bears little resemblance to the one vying to take on President Barack Obama in his bid for re-election. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and, as of Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker represent just a few of the likely top contenders for the nomination.  

When comparing himself to the other presidential hopefuls , Santorum called them "new models in the showroom," which are still under consideration by the American people.  

“Despite all of the new models, I think this one is a pretty good, reliable model that people are going to come back to and say, you know what, all that glitters is not gold," he said. “I’d rather not be their favorite today. I’d rather be their favorite when it matters”  

In 2012, Santorum, as he put it, "started from scratch" before going on to win 11 primaries and caucuses, including the first caucus state of Iowa. He campaigned in all 99 of Iowa’s counties leading up to the caucuses four years ago, and he now plans to spend 19 of the next 33 days back in the crucial Midwestern state.  

“Go back four years ago when we finished fourth in the Iowa straw poll," he said. "Most people thought that was not a particularly good thing to have happen. It turned out not to be particularly relevant at all. A lot of things that happen six, seven months before an election sound big at the time, but in the end don’t turn out to be very consequential.”  

It will be easier this time to get lost in a field approaching 20 candidates . The debate setup — where the top candidates in national polls get prime spots on stage, and Santorum currently stands at No. 11 in the RealClearPolitics polling average — is admittedly a source of ire for the Republican, calling it "undermining" and a "miscarriage" by giving power to the media over voters. But he said the debates carry little importance, especially in such a wide field where perhaps only the most incendiary remarks garner the media spotlight.  

"We went through, what, 20 debates? Eighteen debates? Can you think of a memorable line that Rick Santorum said?" the Republican said of 2012.  

Santorum noted that his focus this time around is to target voters who were “left behind by this economy in the last 10 years” as a result of the recession. He said this is more of an issue this election and is something Republicans are largely ignoring.  

"You look at wages have been stagnant," he said. "You look at median income has declined in the last seven years. ... You see this stagnation that has really made this a much more important issue than I think Republicans have been and continue — many, not all —  to ignore to their peril."  

Santorum's website indicates the former senator will release his full economic plan "in a few short weeks." Despite his emphasis on the issue, Santorum is hardly shying away from vocalizing his opinions on social issues, predominately marriage and the family.  

Contrary to his fellow Republicans, Santorum thinks marriage should be decided at the national level rather than at the state level — though he isn't happy with the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationally.  

“We’ve seen a continual breakdown of the understanding of marriage and nuclear family. It didn’t start with the current marriage debate. It started a long, long, time ago,” he said. “We’ve seen the impact of that with ever-increasing out-of-wedlock birth rates, ever-increasing absentee fathers, ever-increasing levels of poverty.”

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