Where's the respect for Santorum?

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In the crowded 2016 Republican primary, there’s one name that isn't gaining steam yet: Rick Santorum.

The former Pennsylvania senator was the runner-up in the 2012 race and winner of the Iowa caucuses, vanquishing a slew of challengers to win the role as eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s foil.

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But this time around, Santorum barely registers in most early polling and isn’t mentioned by observers as a top contender. And with many more choices than last cycle across the spectrum, he’s struggling to make lightening strike twice.

“[Santorum] was capitalizing on this universe of people that didn’t really believe that Mitt Romney was quite conservative enough for them,” Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s former deputy campaign manager, told The Hill.

“This wasn’t a group of people that was intensely loyal to Rick Santorum.”

If Santorum pulls the trigger again, he’ll be fighting for the same conservative air with former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.,), neurosurgeon Ben Carson and possibly even Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzA plea to young Bernie supporters Grassroots battling establishment on trade at conventions Fixing the disastrous nomination process MORE (R-Texas), among others.

“The challenge that he has is that he will be compared to Huckabee, and generally, Huckabee has done a number of things since he ran last time, GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told The Hill, pointing to the former governor’s Fox News show as one way he raised his visibility.

“There’s a feeling that Santorum scolds you while Huckabee says, ‘Aw, shucks.’”

Santorum’s 2012 campaign essentially had an all-in strategy based off Iowa: win there and then scatter resources across the country to capitalize on momentum from the victory. But unfortunately for the former senator, it took the state two weeks to name him the winner by just a 34-vote margin, and he never fully benefited from the momentum.

Serious support in the polls hasn’t yet materialized in the Hawkeye State ahead of the 2016 campaign. The most recent Des Moines Register poll from February has him in seventh place, well behind Huckabee and Carson.

And Santorum has lost some former staff to other potential opponents, too. Mike Biundo, Santorum’s national campaign manager, signed on with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat to watch for on Day 2 at the GOP convention Cyber squatters sitting on valuable VP web addresses Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE’s PAC, as did John Yob, Santorum’s former delegate strategist.

Still, John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist, argues against counting the former senator out. He cautioned that Santorum’s universe of support is much larger than just social conservatives, and that he’ll be able to build on his 2012 success if he decides to run again.

“People say that Santorum was the last person standing, but there was a reason for that: other people did not pass the test and Rick Santorum did,” Brabender said.

Brabender argues that the primary is about winning the most votes in the different “buckets” of voters. Santorum’s support among Christian conservatives is well known, but he believes Santorum’s populist message and support for raising the minimum wage, as well as his experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee, allows him to win favor from working families and those concerned with foreign policy.

“They see the Republican Party too often just standing up and fighting for the wealthy and not fighting for them,” said Brabender. “They don’t really agree with how progressive the Democrat Party has become, but they’ve traded in the American dream for the stability that big government can offer them.”

Brabender also dismissed early polling numbers and said their campaign-in-waiting has the ability to send resources across the country this time, and not solely bank on Iowa

“You almost have to throw anything that’s considered a polling number out of the window at this point,” he said. “That was the biggest lesson last time, or else we’d be talking about Republican nominee Herman Cain, but we’re not.”

He added he’s much more concerned about favorable ratings than polling position, which he sees as the base to build off of. The same Register poll shows Santorum with 57 percent favorability, good enough to tie for sixth, but higher than Carson, former Fla. Gov Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) and others.

“They’re always going to gravitate towards the new until they kick the tires and looked under the hood,” Brabender said.

But others remain skeptical. If Santorum can’t post a good showing in Iowa especially, there’s little room for him to go anywhere in other early states.

“It’s kind of like when this season’s fashions come out, you don’t sprinkle them in with the fashions from three years ago, unless it was something that was very popular,” said Gage.

“It was a unique combination of factors last time, obviously, that kind of scenario is not being reconstituted,” said Mackowiak.  “That was almost a once in a lifetime scenario.”  

 

-Updated at 3:52 p.m.