Santorum: ‘I’m ready to lead.’

at 11:39 AM ET, 06/06/2011

SOMERSET, Pa. — Former senator Rick Santorum made his presidential campaign official on Monday, pitching himself to supporters here as the antidote to big government and President Obama’s agenda.

“I’m ready to lead,” the Republican said, speaking from the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse in the county where his grandfather immigrated from Italy. “I’m ready to do what has to be done for the next generation.”

Santorum enters the race as a long shot, but he was once considered a rising conservative star in the Republican Party.

Santorum does, however, have a history of scoring political upsets.

He shocked the political world by winning his Senate seat in 1994 at the age of 36. During his 12 years in the Senate, he fought to privatize social security, reform welfare and reduce abortion rights.

In his presidential campaign, Santorum hopes to secure the social conservative base and then build on it by emphasizing the reforms he pushed in the Senate and his work on foreign policy issues, advisers say.

They add that Santorum can successfully be the truth-teller in the race, making the hard decisions without equivocating like the other candidates.

“Things that he was so loud and vocal about that got him in trouble with the party establishment are the things the tea party is looking for,” said senior Santorum adviser John Brabender.

Thus far, Santorum is the only current or former senator to enter a race full of governors, House members and other candidates, and he is expected to be the only one.

But many remain skeptical that Santorum actually has what it takes to distinguish himself in the presidential primary field.

While he used to be one of relatively few voices representing the right wing of the Republican Party, the tea party movement has flooded the GOP with people fighting the same battles that Santorum fought before. And a few of them are running for president and — so far — getting more attention than Santorum.

Despite an ambitious travel schedule that has taken him to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina more than any other candidate, Santorum has yet to make any significant progress in the polls. While Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Godfather’s CEO Herman Cain have gained some traction early in the race, Santorum is still plugging along quietly.

He did win a straw poll in New Hampshire over the weekend, and he won another in South Carolina last month, but so far he seems to be lost in the presidential shuffle.

Pennsylvania GOP consultant Bill Green, who has known Santorum since before he was elected to office and was at Monday’s announcement, said the spark that Santorum had in the late 1990s and early 2000s has faded.

“Time has eclipsed that,” Green said. “(Freshman Pennsylvania Sen.) Pat Toomey has eclipsed that, I think.”

Green noted that Santorum is as consistent and articulate about his views as anybody in the Republican Party, but he also acknowledged that Santorum’s niche as a social conservative isn’t ideal for an election cycle that seems destined to be focused on economic issues.

Santorum’s other big problem is his reelection loss from 2006. Facing a member of a very well-known family of Pennsylvania Democrats, the Caseys, Santorum was out of contention early and wound up losing by 18 points. Santorum’s advisers acknowledge it’s the biggest hurdle he has to clear when it comes to getting his candidacy taken seriously.

But Santorum attributes the loss to his truth-telling ways and his unwavering conservatism, which he says cost him in a tough year for Republicans.

Brabender said the loss isn’t a disqualifier, pointing to the liabilities of the other candidates in the race — including the health care bill that Mitt Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts that many are comparing to President Obama’s bill, which is unpopular in conservative circles.

“Out biggest challenge is that we lost our last race; that you can explain easier than explaining Romneycare,” Brabender said.

Santorum’s team is convinced that, with a field that has so many holes in it, there’s room for somebody whose conservatism has never come into question and who has been doing it for two decades, rather than the emerging conservative crusaders who aren’t as proven.

Getting himself noticed alongside those newcomers will be his first major hurdle.

 
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