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The Morning Line: Santorum Enters 2012 Race

BY David Chalian and Terence Burlij  June 6, 2011 at 9:19 AM EST

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. File photo.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, is getting tired of being asked how he thinks he can win a presidential election if he lost his last statewide race by nearly 18 percent just five years ago.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an answer for it.

“What people are looking for is someone who has stood by their principles in good times and in bad,” Santorum told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview Monday morning in which he officially declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination.

“In 2006, I think by everybody’s estimation was a pretty bad time for a Republican and particularly for a conservative in states like Pennsylvania. And I stood up and I didn’t back away. I didn’t back down on trying to reform the Social Security system,” he added.

“In an election year, I went out to the floor of the United States Senate with Jim Demint and started arguing for reforming Social Security. 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.” 

Although he waited until Monday to make it official, Santorum has been visiting the key early primary and caucus states for the better part of the last 18 months. He’s likely racked up more visits to New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina during that time than any of his opponents.

“We’re going to be in this race and we’re in it to win,” Santorum told Stephanopoulos in language vaguely reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch four years ago. That, of course, is likely to be the last Santorum/Clinton comparison of the campaign.

In addition to sticking to his belief that Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal doesn’t go for enough in transforming Medicare, Santorum was also asked for evidence to support his claim that enemies of the United States do not fear President Obama.

“If you look at the countries that we have been appeasing, the Iranians, they are moving full scale forward with their nuclear program. They know that the president is not going to do anything to stop them. He has been a paper tiger. They are the existential threat to the state of Israel and the Israelis know it and Americans know it. And this president has not stepped forward and has not done anything to stop this threat,” Santorum said.

The Republican field, as it currently exists, is about as good as it gets for Santorum. He has a natural appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party that dominates the Iowa caucus-going and South Carolina primary electorates.

His frequent trips to the key nominating states have been rewarded with a string of straw poll victories at local Republican gatherings, including one over the weekend by the New Hampshire Conservative Future PAC.

However, the Republican field likely isn’t set. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is waiting in the wings and will likely jump into the contest and play for some of the same voters Santorum seeks to woo. And former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain has been lighting up the early state circuit with a Tea Party appeal that can also eat into some of Santorum’s turf. If Sarah Palin decides to take the plunge, that will only further complicate matters for Santorum.

Three upcoming tests for Santorum will be critical in showing how seriously he’s taken in the months leading up to the kickoff contests.

1) Can he deliver a debate moment next week that helps shape the national conversation about the battle for the Republican nomination?

2) Is there enough financial support for him to post surprisingly competitive fundraising totals at the end of the month when the quarter draws to a close?

3) Is he the top finisher among the so-called Tea Party candidates at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, or will Bachmann and Cain deliver a bruising a blow there as Mike Huckabee did to Sam Brownback in 2007?

If “yes” is the answer to all of those questions, Santorum’s candidacy will have some impact on the overall dynamic this fall.

HUNTSMAN TO SKIP IOWA

If he decides to run for president, Jon Huntsman’s path to the 2012 Republican nomination will begin in New Hampshire.

The former Utah governor said over the weekend he will sidestep the Iowa caucuses because of his opposition to federal agriculture and ethanol subsidies, reports Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m not competing in Iowa for a reason. I don’t believe in subsidies that prop up corn, soybeans and ethanol,” Huntsman said on Saturday in response to a voter question at a stop in New Hampshire.

“I probably won’t be spending a lot of time in Iowa. I understand how the politics work there,” Huntsman said.

One candidate who decided to test the risky move of campaigning against ethanol subsidies in Iowa is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,” Pawlenty said when he officially launched his bid at an event in Iowa last month. “We need to do it gradually. We need to do it fairly. But we need to do it.”

Huntsman’s decision to skip Iowa doesn’t come as a total surprise. His past support for policies relating to climate change, immigration and civil unions would have made winning over Iowa conservatives a tall challenge. 

AFGHANISTAN ANGST

President Obama is scheduled to meet with his national security team Monday for the latest in his series of meetings to review Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy.

The meeting comes as Defense Secretary Robert Gates continues his farewell tour in Afghanistan, which included a warning that the initial drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer should be “modest.”

POLTICO’s Mike Allen, who is traveling with Gates, reports that commanders in the field are just now starting to see signs of progress.

The political dynamic at home, however, is one in which a war weary nation is making it hard for Congress and the Obama administration to avoid a significant drawdown to indicate to Americans that a substantial transition is underway in U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

The New York Times leads Monday morning with that tension on display.

“President Obama’s national security team is contemplating troop reductions in Afghanistan that would be steeper than those discussed even a few weeks ago, with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden, which they called new “strategic considerations.

“These new considerations, along with a desire to find new ways to press the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to get more of his forces to take the lead, are combining to create a counterweight to an approach favored by the departing secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, and top military commanders in the field. They want gradual cuts that would keep American forces at a much higher combat strength well into next year, senior administration officials said.

“The cost of the war and Mr. Karzai’s uneven progress in getting his forces prepared have been latent issues since Mr. Obama took office. But in recent weeks they have gained greater political potency as Mr. Obama’s newly refashioned national security team takes up the crucial decision of the size and the pace of American troop cuts, administration and military officials said. Mr. Obama is expected to address these decisions in a speech to the nation this month, they said.”

The upcoming decision on troop levels and a speech to the nation explaining that decision will define the foreign policy news cycle for the weeks to come, just as negotiations over deficit reduction and the debt ceiling will define the domestic discussion for the White House.