Add former Sen. Rick Santorum to the list of potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates.
POLITICO has learned Santorum will visit first-in-the-nation Iowa this fall for a series of appearances before the sort of conservative activists who dominate the state GOP’s key presidential caucuses.
The Pennsylvanian, who lost his 2006 re-election bid, will visit Iowa on October 1st, appearing on a Des Moines radio talk show and speaking to a luncheon and workshop of Iowa’s Right to Life group before heading east to Dubuque, where he’ll headline a fundraiser for the conservative America’s Future Fund PAC and then speak about the future of the GOP to a public audience in the Mississippi River city.
“Your voice becomes more amplified when you go to a place like Iowa or New Hampshire,” Santorum explained in an interview Tuesday about the visit.
Like other potential White House aspirants, he insisted it was too early to consider a presidential run. But he acknowledged that he was interested in taking a higher profile in the party.
“I’m very concerned about the state of affairs in this country and how Republicans are dealing with [issues], so this is an opportunity for me to go out and talk about things I think we need to be doing to turn this country in the right direction,” Santorum said of the Iowa trek—a visit invariably seen as presidential water-testing for any ambitious politician.
Since last November’s election—roughly three years before the next Republican caucuses—Iowa has seen visits from 2008 caucus winner and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, House Minority Conference Chair Mike Pence (R-Ind.), former New York Gov. George Pataki and, before admitting his adulterous affair, Nevada Sen. John Ensign.
The wide range of Iowa callers—which doesn’t even include party heavyweights such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former House Speaker Newt Gingirch—is a signal of the early and unusual fluidity of the 2012 GOP presidential field.
And Santorum, an outspoken social conservative known by Republicans nationwide for his anti-abortion activism, could find support among the many conservative Christians who reliably participate in the GOP’s presidential caucuses.
Citing energy and health care, Santorum said: “One of the reasons I wanted to talk to the Right to Life folks is we can’t lose the moral component of those two bills as well as a lot of other things going on in Washington.”
But having been thumped by 18 percentage points in his bid for a third term and out of office since 2006, Santorum may have a difficult time appealing to a savvy Hawkeye state electorate that is likely to have a full complement of social conservatives to choose from.
“One of the things we’ve seen from the Iowa caucuses is candidates that appeal to the base do very well,” Santorum said when asked how his conservative profile would fit the state. “I think historically that’s always been sort of a key in Iowa. Whether I do or not, I don’t know—I mean, we’ll see.”
But, he added, that’s not on his mind right now.
Clearly, though, Santorum is striving to remain in the public eye. He’s a Fox News contributor, guest-hosts William Bennett’s nationally syndicated radio show every Friday morning and writes a regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He just sent an email to Republican National Committee donors likening 2010 to 1994—the year he and other Republicans were swept into Congress thanks to deep voter discontent with Democratic majorities.
“A new tide of popular grassroots opposition to the Obama Democrats' senseless policies and insatiable hunger for power is rising across America,” Santorum wrote in the fundraising message.
Residing mostly in the Washington-area but still regularly returning home to Pittsburgh, Santorum is associated with a law firm that has offices in both cities.
Santorum, 51, said Republicans aren’t taking on Obama effectively as they could because they are failing to offer enough alternatives of their own—something he blamed on being completely shut out of power.
“If you’re as irrelevant as we are, in many respects, in the House and Senate, there are not many voices that rise to the level of having anybody want to pay attention to you because basically you have no consequences,” he said. “You’re not controlling anything, you have no power.”
As Santorum noted, however, an Iowa appearance guarantees just about any potential White House candidate a megaphone with which to be heard by the wider political world.
“It’s very common in Iowa to have people come in and speak,” Kim Lehman, the Iowa Right to Life and Republican national committee woman, noted matter-of-factly.
That’s especially true in the embryonic stages of the presidential cycle, when any candidate even remotely interested in the White House speaks before Iowa activists with the recognition that they’ll receive significant local and national media attention—as well as interest from a group of voters who take the state’s kingmaker role seriously.
“Nowhere else can you make news even before you set foot in the state,” said Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Romney’s 2008 caucus effort and an Iowa political veteran.
It’s a political season akin to the start of baseball’s spring training—when an enlarged roster of players is closely watched by a small universe. The winnowing will come, but not before even the most far-fetched prospects get a turn in the spotlight.
“Spring training began the day after the 2008 election,” said Albrecht. “If Republicans are going to stage a comeback they need to harness what the grassroots conservatives are thinking and feeling. And there’s no better place to do that than Iowa.”
As for whether his own hopes of making the GOP presidential shortlist are far-fetched, Santorum said: “I’m not putting myself out as a candidate.”
“What this country needs is someone with strong conviction who can articulate those convictions and who can provide a vision for America that is an alternative to the big government, freedom-depriving vision of Barack Obama,” he added. “I don’t know who that is.”