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Santorum Not Content to Be Just Social Conservative Candidate Santorum Not Content to Be Just Social Conservative Candidate

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Campaign 2012

Santorum Not Content to Be Just Social Conservative Candidate

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At last weekend's Faith and Freedom Conference, former Sen. Rick Santorum yoked fiscal and moral issues.(Richard A. Bloom)

Even before he officially declared his bid for president on Monday, one aspect of Rick Santorum's campaign strategy was abundantly clear: He won’t be a one-issue candidate.

The ex-senator from Pennsylvania, whose fire-and-brimstone rhetoric can resemble a sermon, is best-known for his strong, personal anti-abortion stance. And he isn’t distancing himself from that reputation, intent on touting his social conservative credentials even as most candidates focus exclusively on the economy. 

 

(PICTURES: Meet the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls)

"[Obama] has devalued our dollar and devalued our other currency, our moral currency," said Santorum during a rally in rural Western Pennsylvania announcing his campaign. Later this week, he's scheduled to hold a rally outside an abortion clinic in Iowa.

But Santorum has made clear that although he wants the social values mantle, he's not content to be known as just the "abortion" candidate. His campaign's biggest proposals thus far have been far-reaching plans to change the country's entitlement programs. His two-pronged approach reflects the Republican Party’s shift in priorities—no longer can a presidential candidate, even a second-tier one, subsist on only a social agenda. Even if the goal is to appeal to social conservatives, the economy must be as prominent.

 

“I think the playing field has changed in part with the growth of the tea party,” John Brabender, Santorum's senior political adviser, told National Journal.

That may be one reason Santorum is offering more extensive entitlement reforms than any other candidate in the field. While Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have only tentatively embraced House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to voucherize Medicare for those younger than 55, Santorum has suggested it doesn’t go far enough. Even current Medicare recipients should be allowed to opt into the program, he said, an idea that would likely win approval from ardent fiscal conservatives in a Republican primary but could be politically toxic in a general election.

And on Monday, during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, Santorum touted his past support for privatizing Social Security.

(MORE: Satorum announces 2012 White House bid)

 

“In an election year, I went out on the floor of the United States Senate with Jim DeMint and started arguing for reforming Social Security,” he said, referring to the Republican senator from South Carolina, a leading budget hawk. “Not even Paul Ryan in his budget now, in the face of trillions of dollars of deficits currently, had the temerity to step forward and say we have to do Social Security.” Santorum paid a price for his bravado: In 2006 he lost his bid for a third Senate term by 18 points to Democrat Robert Casey, in a state that ranks No. 4 in the nation for the percentage of seniors in its population.

In interviews, Santorum bristles at the notion he’s only a social conservative, insisting that his 12-year Senate record proves he’s just as much a fiscal or foreign-policy conservative. But his campaign acknowledges the challenge in shaking off that reputation—even if it’s one his team is eager to embrace.

“He is such a supporter of social-conservative values that it does overshadow other things,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s senior political adviser. “I will say directly, for the campaign that is a challenge and an opportunity.”

Relative to other candidates, it’s not a bad position for Santorum to be in, Brabender said. Better to be known as the social conservative candidate, he added, than a candidate who must prove his conservative bona fides, such as Romney.

Santorum's aggressive stance on fiscal issues could present a dilemma for the rest of the GOP field: Does his embrace of Ryan’s budget pressure the perceived front-runners, Romney and Pawlenty, both of whom have said they would sign the proposal into law but emphasize they will have their own plan? If Santorum gains traction as a candidate—a big if for a man unceremoniously dumped by voters in his home state in his last election bid—might he force them to take a stand that could cost them the general election?

Regardless, don’t expect Santorum to soften his stance on entitlements.

“People say it’s the third rail of politics—we’re going to test that theory," Brabender said. "Rick believes very much, if you’re honest with the American people and do a good job articulating what the problem is, that they rally behind a common cause. He’s ready to stake a lot in that belief.”

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Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.

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