WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination Monday with an appeal aimed squarely at the GOP's tea party conservatives.
But the former Pennsylvania senator's pitch to an audience in front of the Somerset County (Pa.) Courthouse raised serious questions about his ability to be his party's 2012 nominee. Can he triumph over other, similar-minded Republicans wooing the same constituency? Can someone running as a diehard conservative win a general election?
And does Santorum, 53, who lost his 2006 re-election bid in a crucial swing state by 18 percentage points, still have the ability to garner votes?
Analysts were skeptical. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said getting the nomination is "improbable."
But, they added, he can't be dismissed.
"Santorum grips them with his story," said Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
Santorum delivered his half-hour announcement speech near the coal mine where his immigrant grandfather worked. His grandfather left Italy in 1927 rather than live under fascist rule. He came because of "one word, one reason: Freedom," his grandson said.
Today, Santorum argued, Americans' freedom is eroding.
President Barack Obama, he said, "took that faith that the American public gave him and wrecked our economy and centralized power in Washington, D.C., and robbed people of their freedom."
His evidence: The 2010 federal health care law, which will require nearly everyone to buy coverage by 2014.
"They want to hook you," Santorum said of the Obama administration. "They don't want to free you. They don't want to give you an opportunity. They don't believe in you."
Santorum faces several challenges. Foremost is getting the Republican nomination, since he's competing largely for the same social conservative vote as current or potential candidates like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and to some extent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"Who will be the breakthrough candidate? As others drop out, or self-implode, who will be left?" asked Madonna.
Madonna saw the GOP nomination fight proceeding along two parallel tracks; The battle for the votes of social conservatives, who want a candidate who's firmly anti-abortion and against higher taxes, among others, against the more mainstream Republicans who emphasize economic issues.
The conservatives are seen as being more of a force in Iowa, particularly since more mainstream candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and, if he enters the race, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, are expected to make token efforts there.
Romney kicked off his campaign in Stratham, N.H., last week. And though he spoke briefly about the importance of the Constitution, most of his address involved his antidotes for the sluggish economy.
Romney strategists believe that while they need to appeal to the party's conservatives, they also have to have an eye on the general election and its more moderate voters.
"We need to stay on this economic message," saidRomney's New Hampshire strategist Tom Rath.
In his 2006 Senate re-election race, Santorum won only 28 percent of the independent vote. He was a two-term Senate incumbent, raised millions more than his opponent, but was clobbered by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
Some of Santorum's trouble was an anti-GOP trend, as the election was to some degree a referendum on his support of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war and President George W. Bush.
Santorum noted Monday that he stuck to his principles in that race — citing his effort to revamp Social Security — despite the political peril. And he's hoping that devotion to his views will be seen as a big asset as he begins his new quest.
Quite simply, Santorum said, Obama "devalues our currency, our moral currency."
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