Santorum faces an even more crowded field this time around. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

DES MOINES -- Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum began the 2012 presidential race here trailing badly in both the polls and the money chase, and ended it with a narrow win in the Republican caucuses. Now he's gearing up for another shot at victory in Iowa with a message that's once again geared at courting social conservatives, positioning himself as an alternative to the GOP establishment -- and appealing to disaffected working class voters.

Santorum, wearing a navy Air Force One jacket from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, worked the lobby at the Marriott hotel here Friday night, passing out copies of his latest book, “Bella’s Gift” -- about his daughter who was born with a genetic disorder -- and huddling with tea party leaders.

Later Saturday, he's scheduled to address the Iowa Freedom Summit, a gathering attended by grassroots activists and hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hard-liner and central player in the movement right.

But Santorum, 56, said his message for a possible 2016 campaign goes beyond touting his conservative views on marriage and abortion. In recent weeks, he said, he has begun to organize a national finance network, and honed his pitch on economic opportunity.

Santorum, who hails from the Rust Belt region of western Pennsylvania, called himself a “blue-collar conservative” who could address the rising gap between the rich and the poor and compete with center-right heavyweights Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney on that front.

Both Bush, a former Florida governor, and Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, have focused their public speeches this month on poverty, and how Republicans can reach working-class voters who have drifted away from the GOP.

Santorum cited his emphasis on industrial and manufacturing issues in 2012, on his way to winning 11 primaries and caucuses, as one of the reasons several Republicans contenders are paying closer attention to income inequality and the concerns of workers.

“It’s good to hear a lot of folks, particularly a lot of new folks in the arena, sounding some chords from a song I know very well,” Santorum said. “I feel like we were writing some songs that are going to be sung more loudly this time, and that’s a good thing.”

Should he run in 2016, Santorum said he would still argue for a hawkish foreign policy and be unapologetic in his social conservatism, but the running theme of his campaign would be “speaking out” on behalf of workers.

“The core of our message will be: we’ve got to get America working again, and we have to help the folks that have been left behind by an economy that isn’t producing enough jobs or the kind of jobs that will help those with lower skills to improve their skills and improve their economic status,” Santorum said.

Santorum will be in Iowa until Tuesday for events across the state, going from a “pie and politics” meeting later Saturday in Aurelia to an antiabortion rally in Sioux City on Sunday. Sioux City, in conservative western Iowa, was a base of support for Santorum during the 2012 contest.

Other stops include a moving screening for “One Generation Away,” a documentary produced by EchoLight Studios, where Santorum serves as chief executive officer, and a Tuesday speech before the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

Santorum said retail politicking in Iowa and early primary states can still lift a long-shot candidate, even as super PACs and mega-donors reshape the political landscape.

“They looked at the people they got to know in the last three weeks of the campaign and decided who to vote for, without following the message from Washington about who to vote for,” he said. “Let’s be honest, there is no reason we had that kind of surge from the top down. We were running very few ads, if any, and the national media was ignoring us. In that environment, we took off, and the only way to explain it is that we connected with Iowans. It was the message and the messenger.”

He added: “I think we’re going to be in better shape this time, in a world where money will be a lot more competitive and there are going to be a lot of elephants trampling the grass.”

Also at the Saturday event, which was co-hosted by conservative group Citizens United, were Dr. Ben Carson, a Maryland neurosurgeon, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and former Texas governor Rick Perry, among others. All are potential rivals to Santorum for evangelicals and working-class voters in Iowa and elsewhere as the 2016 race unfolds.