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Santorum: A 2012 long shot tests the water

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.

"Every one of these people is either deeply flawed or irredeemably polarizing, and that's why a guy like Santorum is going to get a look."

Then there's the fact that the Republican establishment may not be in the driver's seat this time. And the other fact that Santorum was a tea party kind of guy before there was a tea party.

Tempered by time

In the recent history of Washington, few have so gleefully ransacked the established order or shown such contempt for its protocols.

Elected to the House in 1990 at the tender age of 32, Santorum made his mark as one of the "Gang of Seven" freshmen who exposed the House banking scandal. They forced the disclosure that more than half of their colleagues had written hot checks, and helped send dozens into retirement or defeat.

As a freshman senator four years later, Santorum violated the chamber's decorous folkways by carting around a "Where's Bill?" sign to demand a balanced budget from President Bill Clinton. He tried to have Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) removed as chairman of the Appropriations Committee because of Hatfield's refusal to support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Santorum was notorious for his moral pronouncements. He contended, for instance, that Boston's liberal culture was partly to blame for the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church there, and suggested that lifting antiquated state sodomy laws would sanction bestiality - or as he put it, "man on dog."

Santorum still breathes fire. In his evolving stump speech, he frames the prospect of Obama's reelection in near-apocalyptic terms: "Democracy and freedom will disappear." His agenda consists of stopping pretty much everything that has been set in motion in the past two years, starting with the overhaul of the nation's health-care system.

Since losing his Senate seat, Santorum has been splitting his time among various endeavors. He has a think tank perch at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a gig as a Fox News commentator, consulting work and speeches.

With seven kids, including a 2-year-old who was born with a serious medical condition, he has to weigh the avocation of running for president against the need to earn money. But friends say his eagerness to get back into the give-and-take of politics and policy is palpable. When he talks about the Senate, where he once had hopes of becoming majority leader, Santorum still occasionally uses the word "we" and slips into the present tense.

His had been an against-the-odds success story. The first true conservative whom Pennsylvania had sent to the Senate since 1952, he even landed a spot in the Senate GOP leadership. But his luck and his political skills ran out in 2006, a bad year to be a Republican and an especially bad one to be challenged by the moderate son of a popular former governor.

Except for the whisper of white around his temples, Santorum at 52 appears little changed from the boyish provocateur who stormed Washington two decades ago. But if he hasn't mellowed exactly, he has been tempered - by age, by experience, by defeat.

As he was taking questions recently at a gathering of College Republicans at American University, one student asked what he would tell someone who was entering Congress now.

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