Santorum launches White House bid

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) positioned himself as a champion of personal freedom and an advocate for “average Americans” when he officially launched his presidential bid Monday.

He enters the race as a long shot for the 2012 Republican nomination. Despite campaigning for virtually the last two years, Santorum hasn’t registered on the radar screens of GOP primary voters, gathering only 2 percent support in a recent Gallup poll of the Republican field.

“I’m ready to lead. I’m ready to do what has to be done for the next generation,” Santorum said during a rally on the steps of the county courthouse in Somerset, Pa. “That’s why I’m announcing today that I’m running for president of the United States of America.”

His speech was filled with attacks on President Obama.

Obama has “devalued our currency, and he’s not just devalued our currency, he’s devalued our culture,” said Santorum, a staunch social conservative.

The former senator, a Roman Catholic, is appealing to evangelical voters during the primary process, particularly in Iowa. That voting bloc is influential in the early caucus state and helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee win the caucuses in 2008.

In his remarks, Santorum lamented the state of the economy and high gas prices and said he “loved our Tea Partiers who raised our Constitution up.”

Notably absent from his speech was any criticism of his fellow Republican contenders. Santorum has not been shy about criticizing them in the past. In particular, he’s had harsh words for the healthcare law Mitt Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts. 

And while that wasn’t mentioned in Monday’s remarks, he did attack the healthcare measure Obama signed into law, calling it the “lynchpin” of the Democrats’ agenda. 

That attack was part of his broader critique of the role of government under the Obama administration, including the president’s defense of Social Security and Medicare.

In a speech last month, Obama indicated those entitlement programs made the United States a “great country.”

But Santorum made a pitch for smaller government.

“America was a great country before 1965,” said Santorum, in a reference to when those programs were created by Congress. “America is a great country not because of our government. It’s because our Founders founded it a great country.”

He made similar comments at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington on Saturday, which could mean he plans to make entitlement reform a central theme of his campaign.

Santorum has targeted Social Security reform before, to his political detriment.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) was able to make Santorum’s views on reforming the retirement benefit an issue during the 2006 Senate race. Casey went on to win that contest by 18 points, despite being outspent by Santorum by some $8 million.

But Santorum didn’t back down on some of the controversial positions he’s taken in the past, saying it will be an asset to his campaign.

“Yeah, I did some things that were very unpopular. But if you look back at what I did and when I did it, people can say, ‘You know what, he may have lost, but he didn’t flinch. He stood by what he believed in and he continued to fight through the end,’ ” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The former senator embarked on a round of media appearances after his announcement. He’s set to fly to Iowa for several events on June 7 and then will head to New Hampshire on June 8 for a two-day swing, according to his campaign. He will participate in the June 13 presidential debate in New Hampshire.

The setting of Monday’s announcement was designed to highlight the former two-term senator’s working-class roots and his family ties to the area, but the outdoor venue proved problematic as his speech wore on.

During his remarks, a member of the audience fainted. Santorum paused, left the stage to check on the individual and then continued his announcement. Also, several balloons popped during his address, prompting him to reassure the audience they were hearing balloons bursting and not an “assassination attempt.”

Santorum played up his family roots in his announcement. He was introduced by his wife, Karen, who noted that the couple had just celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. Their seven children joined them onstage.

During his speech, he talked about his grandfather’s journey from Italy to the United States.

“Our American journey started here in Somerset County,” Santorum told the crowd. “My grandfather came to this county way back in 1927.”

Santorum said his grandfather left Italy despite living in a “beautiful little idyllic town in the mountains, right down on a lake” out of concern over Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. “He said, ‘I will not stand for this,’ and so he left, and he came here … and he started in the coal mines.”

This story was originally published at 12:13 p.m. and updated at 7:52 p.m.