Santorum: ‘I’m ready to lead.’

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

Pointing to the national debt, Obama’s health care bill and the Democrats’ efforts to prevent Republicans from changing Medicare, the Pennsylvania Republican said his campaign is about returning to individual freedom.

“Who are you, Mr. President, to say that you and your administration should take 40 cents of every dollar you spend from future generations to prop you up?” Santorum said.

Speaking to about 300 people on the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse, Santorum recalled his grandfather’s decision to migrate here from Italy in the 1920s to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines. Santorum suggested that, just as his father fled the overzealous government of Benito Mussolini, Americans today face a choice between big government and individual choice.

“Did he come here because our government promised him all sorts of benefits, handouts and bailouts?” Santorum said. “No.”

Santorum enters the 2012 race as a long shot, but he has a history of scoring political upsets, especially his victory in a 1994 Senate race, at the age of 36.

During his 12 years in the Senate, Santorum fought to privatize Social Security, reform welfare and reduce abortion rights. He plans to emphasize such efforts, and his work on foreign policy, during his presidential campaign, as he bids to secure the social conservative base and then build upon it, his advisers say.

They suggest that Santorum can successfully cast himself as the truth-teller in the race, ready to make the hard decisions without equivocating like 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. But he has struggled to distinguish himself from the other candidates — many of whom have a claim on the same kind of conservatism that Santorum pioneered.

While he used to be a rare voice representing the right wing of the party, the tea party movement has flooded the GOP with people fighting the same battles. A few of them are running for president and — so far — nabbing more attention than Santorum.

“Santorum is one of the darkest of the dark horses,” said political analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. “His candidacy is certainly not a joke — he’s very serious and is a serious person — but it’s still a very long shot.”

Santorum has embarked on an ambitious travel schedule that has taken him to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the first states to vote in the 2012 primary season — more than any other candidate.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said that’s the right strategy.

“He’s very focused on the grass roots, which is smart,” Gillespie said. “Retail campaigning is very important in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

Santorum is pitching himself to those voters as an uncompromising fighter. And Victoria Rempel, a teacher from Confluence, Pa., who supports the former senator’s presidential campaign, said that’s what sets him apart.

“I feel that this man has stood the test of time,” Rempel said before Monday’s announcement. “He’s gone through some pretty hard knocks when people have tried to take him down.”

That combative nature made Santorum something of a household name in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But Pennsylvania GOP consultant William Green, who has known Santorum since before he was elected to office, said the spark that Santorum had in the late 1990s and early 2000s has faded somewhat.

“Time has eclipsed that,” said Green, who joined Santorum at the announcement.

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 Bob Casey, a member of a very well-known family of Pennsylvania Democrats, 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 straight talk and 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. For instance, Mitt Romney is defending the health-care bill he signed as governor of Massachusetts, a measure that many compare to Obama’s overhaul — an effort unpopular among conservatives.

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

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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