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updated 2/9/2011 9:01:18 AM ET 2011-02-09T14:01:18

Former Sen. Rick Santorum's crushing 18-point loss in his 2006 re-election bid in Pennsylvania seems an unlikely launching pad for a White House run.

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Yet the outspoken conservative, once a rising star in the GOP, has gotten an early jump on the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, with visits to early primary and caucus states, including New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. He's hired two veteran GOP operatives in Iowa and one in New Hampshire.

As he tests the presidential waters, Santorum, 52, says he may not decide on whether to run until summer. But he said he's getting positive feedback in his visits to key states to court their local armies of conservative activists and party leaders, who often play outsized roles in the early GOP primary process.

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"I've taken that encouragement seriously," he said.

A sharp critic of abortion rights, Santorum has garnered headlines by questioning why President Barack Obama, as the nation's first black president, is willing to deny civil rights to fetuses.

Santorum invokes Obama's race on abortion

The former senator linked civil rights and abortion during an interview last month with the Christian Broadcasting Network, saying that for decades, slavery allowed African-Americans to be treated like property. He said fetuses are denied the right to life because they are considered property.

Not a household name
If he runs, Santorum would be a long shot in a field that could include former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

"She's a rock star," Santorum said of Palin. "She's a megastar. You can't look at her and not think that she would have a huge impact on the nomination."

Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist in New Hampshire, said it's hard for second-tier candidates like Santorum to break through without the right message, tens of millions of dollars in cash and a broad political network.

"Everyone who isn't a household name and doesn't have a national organization will have a hard, hard time," Carney said. "People want to know, 'How are you going to win this thing?'"

Santorum said there still could be an opening for someone with his strong social and fiscal conservative views.

"I can look at it and say, 'I was there doing the things everybody says we should be doing, and I was doing them when they weren't necessarily the most popular thing to do,'" he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Appeal with social conservative base
Santorum hopes the same conservative streak that helped sink his re-election bid in the swing state of Pennsylvania could prove to be an asset in GOP primaries.

"What you're proposing matters, No. 1, and your authenticity matters," he said.

While Santorum would be a long shot, he has appeal with social conservatives who have strong sway in Iowa's leadoff Republican caucuses, said Arthur Sanders, the Levitt distinguished professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa.

"He appeals to that crowd," said Sanders. "He's very attractive in that regard to a lot of the Christian conservatives here in Iowa."

A leading voice against same-sex marriage as well as abortion rights, Santorum was elected to the House in 1990 at age 32.

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He was front and center in the "Gang of Seven," the first-term Republicans who successfully pushed House leaders to disclose which members had abused their checking privileges at the now-defunct House bank. The issue helped the GOP capture the House in 1994 and helped Santorum win a Senate seat that same year.

He emerged as a conservative firebrand willing to stand up to the political establishment and quickly became the Senate's No. 3 Republican.

Some controversy
Santorum has sometimes waded into controversy, too.

He lost his Senate seat by double digits in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey when critics took aim at his book "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good." Santorum wrote that in some families both parents work outside the home when it's not financially necessary. Santorum later said he was talking about upper-income families.

Since his re-election loss, Santorum has worked at a conservative think tank, given speeches and been a commentator on the Fox News Channel.

"Pennsylvania is a tough state for a conservative to win," Santorum said, stressing that he stuck to his conservative views despite the 2006 Democratic tide. "It's not like I ran to the middle. I was going out and talking about things that probably caused me to lose more."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: GOP 2012 field slowly takes shape

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP 2012 field slowly takes shape

    >> we're back with more of our roundtable. 2012 is upon us . i'm sure everyone realizes that politically. eric cantor is saying he's taking a more centrist. here's a preview of the state of the union .

    >> it's going to take a lot of work. these are big challenges that are in front. us. we're up to it as long as we come together as a people, republicans , democrats, independents. as long as we focus on what binds us together as a people. as long as we're willing to find common ground even as we have vigorous debates.

    >> here's the president's approval rating in the latest poll up over 53%. look at this among independents. this is striking. in positive territory, up 11 points, karen hughes . if you are on the republican side , you look at the president, do you agree with dick cheney who says this is a one-term president?

    >> well, i do think he will ultimately be a one-term president. we have sorting out to do in my party to pick out the strongest candidate against him. it's not unusual that his poll numbers have ticked up slightly. that happens after a time of national trauma and he gave a very powerful speech in tucson where i think he was right. he did what a president is supposed to do in a time of trauma and that is call us to be higher and better and try to make our debates spirited but more civil. i think it's a natural result of that and the fact that he reached out to republicans and agreed that you probably don't agree with but agreed to extending bush tax cuts . i think he's making a mistake in state of the union calling for a big increase in federal spending. i have worked in government. there are not many americans who think government is too small. it's too big and too intrusive.

    >> you talk about on the republican side . we see despite all of the apparent front runners and we can get our own poll from the nbc news/" wall street journal " poll indicating who is on top of the heap here. republicans are still sort of hanging back here. they're not rushing to announce and become candidates. why that caution?

    >> from my perspective i think you have president obama really playing this business card in terms of now regulations and giving the image that regulations should be pulled back and pro business and pro tax cut and keeping the left happy. i can tell you financial markets are betting that obama will win re-election by a landslide and post- tucson the change in the financial market went to mitt romney . sarah palin had been the presumed republican front runner. now it's romney . all of her loss went to mr. romney and did not go to huckabee. that's the financial market bet right now.

    >> you said he's giving the image of moving to the center. the question is how much of this is perception and how much of this is actual policies that he's going to implement. the regulations and announcement of review of regulations and his administration is writing new ones to implement health care and financial reform.

    >> talk about republicans and what's happening in the republican field now.

    >> first of all, you have the republican party 's coalition being transformed in a mirror image of the democratic party 's coalition. they are moving upscale and been doing better in upper middle class white collar suburbs with people who are liberal on foreign policy and republican party are more blue collar than there used to be. you'll see a class divide in 2012 particularly if sarah palin runs. mitt romney does well in that professional republican new you. i call them managers. you have people like palin and mike huckabee and maybe rick perry if he wants to come out of austin who will be stronger with national conservatives . you don't have a candidate in the republican field who can unite these two wings of the party and that's why you see no one at 20% in your survey.

    >> tim pawlenty and newt gingrich say republicans shouldn't vote to raise the debt ceiling. sarah palin comes up so often. our poll indicated her likability is a problem. positive rating at 27%. negatives are high at 49%. where does she stand now?

    >> i think that she's had a bad couple of weeks. i think that her reaction to tucson was particularly bad, and i think she's moving herself to the fringe but it's a fringe that's occupied by probably half of the republican caucus in the house right now. if you look at the economic program they're putting forward, i think it would be pretty much in line with the way palin sees the future as opposed to the way romney does and that i think spells trouble for the republican party which is careening off to the right at this moment.

    >> you talked about sarah palin during a radio address with bill press. you were critical of that. i want to play a portion of that.

    >> sarah palin can't seem to get it on any front. i think she's an attractive person. she's articulate. i think that intellectually she seems not to be able to understand what's going on here.

    >> a couple of observations about that. one, you were dismissive of her. second, i hear when i talk to people about sarah palin one of the things particularly women tend to react to is how frankly men talk down to her. i wonder how a lot of women would react to you saying. she's attractive and articulate but intellectually she doesn't have much heft.

    >> i have a wife and three daughters and we talk about these kinds of things. we do consider her to be a very attractive candidate. she's very articulate when it comes to issues she puts forward. the fact of the matter is she doesn't seem to get the impact of what she says and what she does. the fact of the matter is that we have congresswoman's giffords saying that she took offense at these crosshairs. she spoke about it very tell eloquently and was disturbed by it and her husband told us they had conversations about this and she was seriously concerned about exactly what happened. i think that anybody in public life ought to really come to grips with what their words mean and what their actions --

    >> karen, you work for a guy who love to be underestimated in president bush . do you think there's a strain of folks out there who may not be palin people who don't like who she's talked about?

    >> i think that's true. people don't like to see her look down. if she runs, she'll be factor. we have a wide field of republicans . i know a lot of republicans are wringing their hands, i'm not one of those. we believe in competition and opportunity. there's a great opportunity right now for someone to emerge. we have well qualified governors who have cut spending in their states who have created a pro-growth and pro-jobs environment in their state. we have members of congress and members of the senate.

    >> here's the new hampshire straw poll from this weekend that shows you have mitt romney on top of it. a lot of people.

    >> as potential nominee, sarah palin is strong where republicans are strongest. the movement of working class white voters toward the republican party in the last 30 years but accelerated under obama is enormous. two-thirds of them voting republican. she's weakest where the electorate is most fluid and where this will be decided in that white collar upper middle class college educated white electorate moving toward democrats and through this class inversion where they do better in places than in youngstown but have pulled back from democrats. if obama is going to win in 2012 it will be with a coalition of young people and minorities who didn't turn out and then college educated who are socially liberated voters. you saw this in colorado. david axelrod pointed to michael bennett 's win as a model of what they need to do. sarah palin is weak where they have to beat obama .

    >> my concern with this is we game the system. how will it go with this poll or that. it comes to the big issue and we talk about debt, your interview with representative cantor said so much. no one wants to cut spending but in long-term there isn't anybody on either side when we hit the road here is willing to deal with the big issues facing this country when it comes to big three things. i wonder and maybe this is a financial correspondent here but i wonder if in a world without term limits you'll address those big issues and those big issues that could bankrupt this country because you're not going to get re-elected if you cut social security or you cut medicare.

    >> partly because those are issues that are too big for one party to deal with alone. the only way food thto do that is to have both parties do it together.

    >> i want to get a quick point in here. ambassador huntsman to china hasn't ruled out his own run for presidency. watch this.

    >> i couldn't be happier with the ambassador's service and i'm sure he'll be successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future and i'm sure him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any republican primary .

    >> what you missed there was the president's broad smile after that. there's a lot of people who think he put huntsman in the job in the first place so he wouldn't run against him.

    >> i think that the president put this in some perspective which is that huntsman is an attractive guy. he's probably got a political future. presidency in the next round i don't see it.

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