Rick Santorum is tired of being the 'social conservative' candidate

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NASHUA, N.H. -- Rick Santorum traveled to New Hampshire on Friday for the first time since the 2012 presidential election with little fanfare, and with something to get off his chest.

Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, finished second to Mitt Romney in the last Republican presidential primary, and he's thinking about trying again.

But he’s still grappling with his Image from the 2012 race, in which he was known to many as a candidate exclusively focused on social issues — a narrow characterization he rejects and is now actively working to challenge.

“People say, ‘How is it that you were able to win 11 states?’ They say, ‘Oh, it must have been because he was the 'social conservative' in the race,’” Santorum said in remarks Friday at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H. “I remind you that on the social conservative issues, just about everybody in the race had the same positions as I did.”

Santorum was not ranting or speaking off-the-cuff, but executing a deliberate strategy to try to frame himself as a more well-rounded candidate ahead of whatever future political plans he may hold.

In an interview later Friday with the Washington Examiner, Santorum elaborated on his nagging frustration with having been pigeonholed last election as the socially conservative candidate — a portrayal that, he said, “just doesn’t tell the whole story.”

After one campaign event, Santorum recalled, “One reporter got up and asked me a question on gay marriage, and then he asked me a question about abortion, and then another asked me a question about another social issue, and then the final question was, ‘Senator, why are you always talking about social issues?'”

“And I looked at him like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Santorum said.

Santorum, who was raised in a middle-class household and drew a contrast with Romney by highlighting his nonelite upbringing, regularly focused on populist, economic themes in his campaign-trail appearances.

But Santorum's polarizing stances on social issues often eclipsed his remarks on the economy. Santorum, a Catholic, warned of the “dangers of contraceptives.” In a February 2012 interview on "This Week" on ABC, Santorum said he didn't "believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute.”

Those statements and others like them coalesced to form Santorum’s mainstream political reputation, and the Image stuck.

“It’s not that we were upset about it,” said Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s presidential campaign communications director. “We were frustrated.”

There is some hope among Santorum and his allies, however, that the public and the media will have had their fill of Santorum’s social conservatism by the next presidential election.

“I think everyone knows where Rick Santorum stands on the social issues,” Gidley added. “The next time he runs, he won’t have to outline his conservative bona fides.”

Foster Friess, a Republican billionaire who lent hefty financial support to Santorum during the 2012 presidential race, and who plans to do so again should Santorum run in 2016, echoed that prediction during a recent interview with the Washington Examiner.

“I think what will happen, now that he's been out in the business world a bit, is people won't constantly put him in the corner of a cultural conservative, and they'll realize how savvy he is on foreign relations,” Friess said before he met privately with Santorum during the Conservative Political Action Conference. “He's got the fiscal conservatism, he's got the national security conservatism, and you might see something on the cultural front as well.”

To help boost his association with non-social issues, Santorum will release a book late next month entitled, Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works.

It promises to showcase an intentional shift in focus from an earlier work by Santorum, It Takes A Family: Conservatism And The Common Good, published nearly a decade ago. But Santorum says he won't disavow or stop invoking the socially conservative stances outlined in that latter work and during the 2012 race to win any future election.

“The people who talk about that we have to win are all folks who believe that what we believe in can’t win,” Santorum said. “And that’s a problem, because I think it’s false, and it leads to an abandonment of the principles that we think are best for America in order to win.”

After his speech to the NRLC on Friday, Santorum retreated to a nearby hotel to reconnect with a small group of supporters from his 2012 bid for president. Santorum has also traveled in recent months to South Carolina and to Iowa, where he narrowly won the caucuses in 2012 — systematically testing and honing his message for a potential 2016 presidential bid.

“I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m looking at this, but right now it’s 2014 and I have seriously not made any decisions to announce,” Santorum told the Washington Examiner. “But I have made the decision to look at it, and when you look at it, you can’t just sit back and look. You have to see whether there’s a there there.”

But, Santorum said, it’s “too soon to tell.”

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