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2012 GOP convention: Why former Romney foe Santorum's speech matters

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor
Mitt Romney campaign on Flickr

Just a few months ago, Republican contender Rick Santorum was slamming Mitt Romney at every opportunity – over his Massachusetts health-care reform, his past as a “financier from Wall Street,” and as someone who would “say anything to be elected.”

Now, having dropped out of the GOP nomination race, the former US senator from Pennsylvania is an important ally, both in Mr. Romney’s quest for Republican unity and as an attack dog against President Obama. And when Mr. Santorum addresses the Republican National Convention, he will also – perhaps – be taking his next step toward another run for the presidency, either in 2016 or 2020.

The focus of Santorum’s speech Tuesday night is welfare reform, amid charges that Mr. Obama is weakening the work requirement for recipients of public assistance. Speaking Tuesday morning on CBS, Santorum called the new waiver program ‘‘a very, very serious assault’’ on welfare reform. Fact-checkers call the charge misleading. In the Senate, Santorum played an important role in enacting the 1996 reform.

Tuesday night in Tampa, Santorum brings to the stage his newly won star power as a leading voice of social conservatism – and an unspoken message that Romney, who governed Massachusetts as a moderate, can now be trusted.

Santorum’s appearance represents “another piece of the mosaic they’re trying to put together of a united Republican Party and conservative movement,” says Gary Bauer, a social-conservative leader who endorsed Santorum for president. “Republicans only win when they bring together social, economic, and foreign policy conservatives. I think it’s happening.”

After Santorum dropped out of the presidential race in April, the final GOP contender to do so (except for Rep. Ron Paul), he waited to back Romney. And even when the endorsement came, it seemed grudging. But over time, he has become a loyal soldier in the battle to unseat Obama.

On the down side for Romney, Santorum’s return to the national stage also brings back discussion of last week’s sensational comment by Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP Senate candidate from Missouri who said women usually can’t get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape.” (Congressman Akin opposes abortion without exception.) Top Republicans – from Romney on down – urged Akin to drop out, to no avail, in an episode that exacerbated the party’s internal tensions over the role of social issues in the campaign.

In his interview Tuesday with Charlie Rose of “CBS This Morning,” Santorum called Akin a “good man” who made a “ridiculous statement.” He criticized Akin for mishandling the episode, but then talked about how the Republican Party is on the right side of the abortion issue.

"If you look at young people, young people are more pro-life than our generation," said Santorum, who is in his 50s. "And why? Because, well, science is a hard thing to overcome. You look at that 4-D sonogram in the womb and you see that child with fingers and hands and the beating heart and looks like you and me, and it's hard to look at that and say, 'Well, that's not a person, that's not someone who deserves protection.' And I think more and more people are moving in our direction, and I think society is moving in our direction, and I think that's a good thing for us."

In the primaries, Santorum won 11 states and 255 delegates. But unlike Congressman Paul, Santorum has asked his delegates to vote for Romney in the formal nomination process at the convention.

In June, Santorum announced formation of a political action committee, Patriot Voices, which is raising money for Republican candidates and promoting conservatism. He has continued to make appearances at political events – including in early primary and caucus states, such as Iowa and South Carolina. Santorum also has a few more flecks of gray hair than he did earlier this year, no doubt a boon to a young-looking candidate who aspires to the presidency.

Mr. Bauer, president of the group American Values, is still high on Santorum as a future contender, though he is quick to say that he thinks Romney will be elected and reelected, as long as he implements the conservative policies he espouses.

But looking ahead to the 2020 presidential race, Bauer sees a strong Republican bench in the mold of the late President Reagan, a conservative icon. “And certainly,” he says, “Rick would have one of the prime seats on that list of men and women.”