WASHINGTON — Two decades ago, Rick Santorum took the House by storm as a freshman rabble-rouser who gave the complacent Republican leadership fits.
One decade ago, Santorum vaulted into the Senate GOP leadership as a young firebrand whose conservative zeal later helped cost him his seat in Congress.
Now, in a new decade, Santorum is back.
At 53, he's entering the Republican presidential race no longer offering himself to voters as a rising star or the next big thing, but as the tried-and-true candidate conservatives can count on — like an old shoe that fits better than anything new.
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"Someone who's been there for many, many years talking about the same issues in the same way is what a lot of folks, a lot of conservatives, are looking for," he says.
Long a favorite of religious and social conservatives for his staunch opposition to gay rights and abortion, Santorum joined the GOP field on Monday as a longshot driven by his belief that religion deserves a stronger role in public life.
"To me there are truths out there," Santorum said recently in an AP interview. "There are things that are right and things that are wrong. That may not be popular and it may lose you an election, but that's OK."Story: Santorum kicks off 2012 bid in Pennsylvania
Santorum may have lost some swagger since his days as a congressional upstart, but he's betting that the same conservative fire that worked against him when he lost his seat in Congress will be a big advantage in GOP primaries and caucuses often dominated by the right.
He's selling authenticity.
"He says things that are combustible," said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "He's hard-charging and high-octane. ... But he's very direct. You don't have to worry about double-speak with him. He is what he is."
Faith and politics
Santorum's conservatism is deeply rooted in his faith.
He grew up in a devout Catholic family in Butler, Pa., the son of an Italian immigrant father who was a psychologist and a mother who was a nurse.Video: Santorum kicks off 2012 presidential bid (on this page)
"You had to be on your deathbed not to go to Mass," said his younger brother, Dan.
Butler was a mostly blue-collar town with lots of ethnic churches, Rick Santorum recalled.
"Those characteristics of hard work, loyalty, family and church were very much drummed into me," he said.
Dan Santorum said his brother had a deep competitive streak, evident when he played baseball, chess and board games like Risk. He hated losing.
"He still does," said the younger Santorum. "But he's not a sore loser. He's not a quitter. That's served him well in politics."
During college at Penn State, Rick Santorum drifted a bit from his faith before meeting his wife, Karen Garver Santorum.
"The beautiful thing about it is we grew in our faith together," Santorum said. "We wanted that to be the grounding for our marriage."
That faith has been tested. He and his wife have seven children. Another child, Gabriel Michael, died in 1996, two hours after an emergency delivery.
The couple slept with the bundled dead baby's body in their hospital room that night, wanting to keep Gabriel in their arms until the burial. They took Gabriel's body home so their other children could see and hold the baby before burying him, according to Karen Garver Santorum's book, "Letters to Gabriel."
"Daddy and I wanted to hold you for as long as we possibly could," she wrote.
The couple's youngest child, 3-year-old Isabella, was born in 2008 with trisomy 18, a genetic disorder. Fewer than 10 percent of those diagnosed with the condition live to their first birthday.
Santorum says his daughter's illness cut both ways as he debated whether to run: He wanted to spend as much time with her as possible, but he also felt the need to fight for "children like Bella and for the dignity of human life."
"These children are simply denied care because they don't have long life expectancies," he told the AP. "They're not seen as useful economic units."
Santorum has doggedly laid the groundwork for what he hopes is his comeback campaign. He's been a frequent visitor to New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, states that vote early in the nominating season. His back-to-better-days campaign slogan: "Fighting to make America America again."
But his candidacy will have to overcome hurdles, including low name recognition and the lack of a strong fund-raising organization. He also has to hope supporters aren't scared off by his 18-point loss in the 2006 Senate race.
Santorum was elected to the House in 1990 at age 32. He shot to prominence as one of the "Gang of Seven" freshman Republicans who bucked their leadership and helped to expose fellow lawmakers who had abused checking privileges at the now-defunct House bank. In 1994, the scandal helped the GOP capture control of the House.
That same year, Santorum beat Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford and emerged as a conservative force to be reckoned with in the Senate, attaining the No. 3 leadership spot in the chamber.
He successfully pushed a bill that banned late-term abortions. In 2005, Time magazine named him among the nation's 25 most influential evangelists.
Santorum held his Senate seat for 12 years before losing in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey, the son of a popular former governor, as part of an anti-war, anti-incumbent tide.Story: Santorum kicks off 2012 bid in Pennsylvania
Controversy over his conservative views hurt him as well.
Santorum drew sharp criticism after saying in 2003 that he believed states had the right to ban gay sex or other private behaviors "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family." He brought up a pending Supreme Court case over a Texas sodomy law and said, "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery."
His words sparked protest, particularly among gay rights supporters and Democrats.
Santorum later said his remarks were in the context of a past Supreme Court ruling on privacy and were not meant as "a statement on individual lifestyles."
Since losing his Senate seat, Santorum has given speeches and worked at a conservative think tank and as a cable news channel commentator.
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