Rick Santorum has honed his image along the GOP campaign trail

In the opening weeks of the Republican presidential race, Rick Santorum came across as a prickly, exasperated figure on the fringe of the debate stage, spending much of his airtime complaining about the lack of attention from the moderators.

But Santorum gradually has taken on a different image, one of a confident, good-natured and almost fatherly presence on the campaign trail who has shrewdly taken advantage of the shifting political landscape.

While his rivals attacked one another in the media glare, Santorum’s campaign has followed a carefully calibrated strategy to leverage his status below the radar.

Hearing from voters that Santorum’s electability was an issue, his advisers honed his message and focused his attention on a handful of states where he could win. When the controversy about contraception coverage and the Catholic Church emerged last week, Santorum leapt at the chance to address social issues, which are his strength.

And after nine months on the campaign trail, he has sharpened his stump speech, speaking with more confidence and authority and centering on a theme unique to his candidacy: It is impossible to tackle the economy without addressing the social problems that contribute to it.

That more sure-footed demeanor was on display as a beaming Santorum spoke Friday to a packed house at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, flanked by his wife and six of his seven children.

“This is not the von Trapp family and we’re not going to sing,” he joked before drilling in the message that he has sought to make stick — that the country wants and needs an unabashed conservative such as him at the helm. “The lesson we’ve learned is that we will no longer abandon and apologize for the principles that made this country great, for a hollow victory in November.”

Santorum has become a better candidate, supporters say, at the same time as the campaign atmospherics have changed in a way that helps his candidacy.

“When I look at the three candidates on the stage now, if there was an award for the most improved, it would be Rick Santorum,” said J. Gresham Barrett, a former congressman and chairman of Santorum’s South Carolina campaign.

Early on, Santorum and his advisers noticed that voters at town hall meetings were raising questions about his electability — a widespread and persistent concern, considering that only 2 percent of Republican voters labeled him the best candidate to take on President Obama in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll.

Santorum, known for his back-and-forth engagement with his audience, grilled the voters about what they meant. The conversations, advisers said, helped sharpen Santorum’s stump speeches. He now invariably mentions that he is the only candidate to have won an election in a swing state, and that, as the grandson of a coal-miner, he is uniquely suited to win over conservative blue-collar Democrats.

In his victory speech after sweeping three state contests last week, he noted: “Governor Romney’s greatest attribute is, Well, I have the most money and the best organization. Well, he’s not going to have the most money and the best organization in the fall, is he?”

The former Pennsylvania senator also benefited from the shifting dynamics of the race.

He may have always emphasized his blue-collar roots, but this suddenly seemed more relevant as Romney has struggled recently to defend his wealth and demonstrate empathy with the poor. Santorum, by contrast, has made helping the impoverished a key part of his campaign and doubled down on that emphasis as Romney flailed.

Early in the campaign, Santorum seemed out of step with the times when he launched his candidacy on a message of social conservatism, arguing that the country’s financial problems were inextricably linked to its sagging marriage rates and the number of children born out of wedlock.

Then last week, the Obama administration’s guidelines requiring many religious institutions to cover contraception as part of employee health insurance galvanized conservatives, who view the decision as a breach of religious liberty. The controversy handed Santorum, a conservative Catholic, a tailor-made campaign issue, even after the Obama administration revised its rules Friday.

Santorum’s embrace of social issues has been a stealth benefit in the primary because those issues galvanize grass-roots voters, said Ralph E. Reed Jr., a longtime Republican operative and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“The upper echelon of the party, the givers and bundlers, tend to be Chamber of Commerce Republicans. But the grass roots of the party, they’re primarily driven by cultural and social issues,” Reed said. “The message and the raison d’etre of the Santorum candidacy could be summed up in one sentence: The way to have a strong economy is to have strong marriages and families.”

Santorum also has managed to finesse his reputation as a testy and self-righteous “culture warrior,” cultivated over 16 years in Congress. His persona has evolved over the course of the campaign into something softer and humbler — at least to conservative voters, who see in Santorum an earnest and passionate believer in their causes. At house parties and town hall meetings, Santorum has lingered long after the events to answer questions and pose for pictures.

As his rivals focused their attacks on one another in Nevada, Santorum used the opportunity to condemn the infighting — and campaign elsewhere. And when opponents mocked his sweater vest as a garment of a bygone era, Santorum turned it into an emblem of his campaign.

Recent polls show that he has become better known and better regarded since June — his favorability rating among Republican voters was a solid 52 percent in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll. He performs well among voters for whom social issues are critical and those who believe “strong moral character” is the most important candidate attribute.

“I think part of his likability, especially within the Republican right, is based on the perception that he is earnest, that he believes what he says,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who has followed Santorum’s campaign. “You wrap that all up in a sweater vest and you’re the Mister Rogers of the Republican primary.”

Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.

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