The Rick Santorum record: The original Ted Cruz, but with George W. Bush baggage

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As a presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who was once a trailblazer, would face a field of opponents who have staked out positions a lot like his own. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Reigning 2012 Iowa caucus victor and former Sen. Rick Santorum is expected to announce another presidential bid Wednesday, jumping into a 2016 Republican field crowded with candidates just like him — socially conservative current and former U.S. senators.

And though Santorum was in many ways the prototype for the wave of tea party lawmakers who went to Washington in 2010 — brash, unapologetically conservative, disliked by his Senate colleagues — he must now distinguish himself from opponents molded in his likeness while simultaneously grappling with issues that defined the Republican establishment a decade ago but look different today, such as the Iraq War.

As a senator, Santorum didn’t seem to care for Capitol decorum or what his colleagues thought of him, which at the time was rare but now is par for the course. Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey was famously overheard asking a colleague whether “Santorum” was “Latin for” the name of a bodily orifice used to describe a person you might not think so highly of. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., reportedly had equally choice and disdainful words, characterizing Santorum as both young and a “little” something that emanates from that aforementioned bodily orifice.

In other words, Santorum was 20 years ago to his contemporaries what his 2016 opponents Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and (especially) Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are to theirs now.

And yet, Santorum has something that the Santorum 2.0s do not have: 16 years of inside-the-Beltway experience, comprising four years in the House and 12 years in the Senate. The length of his résumé, and voting record, throws a wrench into what has become a significant piece of the conservative political narrative, which is to embrace the state of being a political outsider over all else.

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former U.S. President George W. Bush. (Photo: Getty Images)

Santorum’s congressional record is largely what would be expected by a voter who knew him only through his brief but relatively successful 2012 presidential campaign: Of the six laws for which he was lead sponsor, two related to abortion rights. One of those measures was the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006, approved around the same time that then-President George W. Bush planned a veto of a bill to expand stem cell research. The law made the farming of fetuses and embryos for research purposes illegal, even though one of the co-sponsors at the time said the “practice isn’t under serious scientific consideration.”

The other law championed by Santorum was the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, prohibiting late-term abortions. Santorum, like many other longtime members of Congress, also effectively spearheaded several post-office namings and recreational park expansions.

He introduced, as a sponsor or co-sponsor, 2,088 bills, 86 of which became law, according to the Library of Congress’ congressional database.

But as much as Santorum was a pain in the side of his colleagues and a social conservative, he also was inextricably tied to former President George W. Bush at the time of his Senate defeat in 2006 to Bob Casey, a Democrat who still holds the seat.

Santorum had leveraged his conservative bona fides to get a seat at the Senate leadership table, something current conservatives seem less intent on doing — perhaps because they’re all running for president — and was a staunch defender of the Iraq War. His race against Casey was one of the most-watched of the 2006 cycle, and the New York Times, writing about his defeat then, highlighted what could end up being a weakness in a primary where Jeb Bush, brother of George W., is on the ticket.

“A favorite among social conservatives, [Santorum] ran as a strong supporter of the war in Iraq and tried to paint Mr. Casey as a captive of a liberal party that could not be trusted on values or national defense,” the New York Times wrote, adding that Santorum’s opponent portrayed him “as the party captive, pointing to a voting record that tied him closely to Mr. Bush in a state where exit polls showed 6 in 10 voters disapproving of the president’s job performance. ‘When two politicians are agreeing 98 percent of the time, one of them isn’t necessary,’ Mr. Casey said in a frequent campaign line.”

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Santorum, shown at this year’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, is likely to face some tough challenges on social issues and on the Iraq War, which he defended. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jeb Bush has struggled with multiple questions about the Iraq War and whether he would have authorized it, which has led to every other GOP candidate being asked similar questions about an active battle that has technically ended but has created a new, geopolitically complicated situation in the Middle East that could ultimately require even more American military engagement than the current air campaign against Islamic State fighters.

In a packed GOP debate — if Santorum even can qualify to be on the stage — the former senator would have a liability on the Iraq issue: He will be one of only two people (if current Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as expected, gets in the race) to have actually voted for the war. And Graham is framing his candidacy on being a war hawk, deriding the rest of the field for not being strong enough on terrorism or national security issues.

That’s not quite Santorum’s angle into the race, but with so many other conservatives in the mix, it’s not clear what is. Moreover, even in the past four years, the landscape on social issues — Santorum’s bread and butter with the base — has evolved. A record 60 percent of Americans support gay marriage, including 37 percent of Republicans (up 15 points from 2012) and 64 percent of Independents, according to a Gallup survey taken earlier this month.

As Santorum tries to navigate his way between new Republican conservative politics and old, the coming weeks will likely be interesting and defining ones for the one-time Iowa caucus winner.

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