In most respects, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign ended at midnight on March 6 in a high-school cafeteria in Steubenville, Ohio. Fox News called the Buckeye State for Mitt Romney, effectively ending the Pennsylvanian’s long-shot bid. He stayed in the race for another month, but that Rust Belt defeat, in a state a short car ride from his Pittsburgh roots, was devastating. Three months later, Santorum has ceded the stage to Romney, but his interest in national politics remains as strong as it was on that spring night.
On Friday, Santorum made one of his first major public speeches since leaving the trail, appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s Chicago convention. “This is the most important election maybe in the history of the country,” he told the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation. “The fact that I’m not in it any more doesn’t change that.” As expected, his remarks focused upon the broad themes of his campaign: family values, freedom, and faith. He railed against the “elites” and talked up American manufacturing.
But woven within the usual rhetoric was a news nugget: Santorum has launched a new group, “Patriot Voices,” to rally his conservative supporters behind his favorite congressional candidates, his policy ideas, and, when necessary, behind Romney. Upon hearing the news, an MSNBC panel dubbed the organization the “Save Santorum Fund” — a wink to his potential political comeback in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, should Romney lose in November.
Santorum, in an interview with National Review Online, emphasizes that “Patriot Voices” will do more than keep his own voice in the debate. He acknowledges that part of the group’s mission will be to have him speak around the country, but beyond that, he wants to influence the GOP’s future, be it at the Republican National Convention in Tampa or in small midwestern towns, much like those Iowa hamlets which lifted him to a narrow caucus victory in January.
“The best thing we can do, short term and long term, is to go out there and talk about issues that clearly moved people,” Santorum says. “We want to reflect the voices of people who do not feel like they are being heard by the establishment of either party. Patriot Voices is going to be issue-based and conservative, focused on a few niches, as well as a place where all Americans can come together.”
In a smaller way, Santorum would like to play a Jim DeMint–like role in hot primaries — wading in and backing the conservative challenger. He recently held an event for Ted Cruz in Texas and supported Richard Mourdock’s campaign against Senator Dick Lugar. “We’re not going to get involved in a lot of races, but we’ll get involved in some of them,” he says. “Most days, we’ll focus on the general election.”
Santorum has spoken with Romney once since the primary ended, in a face-to-face meeting in western Pennsylvania, but the pair does not keep in touch via phone or e-mail. “I haven’t heard anything from him personally since our meeting, but our staffs talk,” he says. “He knows that we can be helpful if he needs us.” The former senator also does not expect to be on the ticket. He hasn’t been asked to submit any personal information for a potential veep vetting. “That’s Governor Romney’s decision,” he says. “I’m not going to weigh in on that.”
“I’m off doing my own thing,” Santorum chuckles when I press him on the vice-presidential chatter. “I don’t want to enhance the intrigue. I’m sure he’ll make a good decision.” Same goes for the Tampa convention: Santorum won’t publicly push for a primetime speaking slot, but he wouldn’t mind being asked: “We’ll be happy to participate at any level that they think would be beneficial to the cause.” Regardless of whether he’s at the podium, he says, you can expect him to be in Florida, in the arena, and huddling with conservatives.