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Rick Santorum Grasps for the Mainstream

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RICK SANTORUM 2012

Former Senator Rick Santorum's bid for the White House began in earnest today with a kickoff speech in Somerset, Pennsylvania. After being introduced by his wife, Santorum addressed the crowd with remarks designed to position him squarely within the ranks of viable contenders. Although Santorum's far right positions on hot button issues like abortion, welfare and gay rights have made him a darling of social conservatives, his speech today attempted to align his campaign as much with the Republican mainstream as with its cultural warriors.

Santorum's reach for the political mainstream is a bit of a surprise. Political observers on both sides of the aisle have assumed that the intent of Santorum's longshot White House bid is to elevate his profile among the hard right -- in the tradition of niche candidates like Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes.

Yes, Santorum got his biggest applause when he attacked federally funded abortions and the Obama administration's position on the Defense of Marriage Act. Redact a few of these lines, though, and Santorum's speech could have been delivered by any of the other Republican candidates. Mitt Romney, for example, has certainly focused on a similar theme of reclaiming the American ideals of freedom and opportunity -- not exactly controversial rhetoric.

Santorum's speech was also notable in its lack of references to other Republican candidates for president. In the past, he has not shied away from taking on members of his own party, but with his kickoff, he took the fight directly to President Obama.

This attempted shift toward the Republican mainstream is a risky strategy. In a still-unformed field -- where the "frontrunner," Mitt Romney, is stuck in the mid-teens in national polls -- perhaps Santorum actually sees a path to victory. But if Santorum has a base (national polls show him in the 1-2 percent range), it's with the red meat conservatives who are most concerned with the social issues that Santorum has long been associated with. If he shies away from taking these issues on, it's not clear that he will be able to draw sufficient crowds or dollars to sustain even a barebones campaign.

David Meadvin is president of Inkwell Strategies, a professional speechwriting and strategic communications firm. He was chief speechwriter to the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senate Majority Leader.

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