I was wondering when Rick Santorum was going to reassert himself into the discussion of potential candidates for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination. That moment came on Jan. 11 in an interview published in The New York Times. In it, the former Pennsylvania senator said the only reason he wouldn't seek the nomination would be reluctance on the part of his family. Given that he was runner-up to Mitt Romney in 2012, that tells you everything you need to know about Santorum's intentions.

In the interview, Santorum launched "early salvos" against his closest rivals for support among conservative voters, especially Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran Cruz, Graham and Cheney call on Trump to end all nuclear waivers for Iran Pompeo: US ending sanctions waiver for site where Iran resumed uranium enrichment MORE (Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard Paul Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMcConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters GOP senator introduces bill to limit flow of US data to China GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week MORE (Fla.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's record isn't conservative enough, Santorum said, while the freshman senators are little more than bomb throwers.

"Do we really want someone with this little experience?" Santorum said of Paul, Cruz and and Rubio. "And the only experience they have basically — not Rubio, but Cruz and Paul because I don't think Rubio is going to go — is bomb throwing? Do we really want somebody who's a bomb thrower, with no track record of any accomplishments?"

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The Times reporter interpreted these remarks as illustrative of the stakes involved in securing the support of the GOP's conservative base. "Already," Jonathan Martin wrote, "there is notably less restraint in the language used by the more conservative aspirants than in the public statements from the establishment-backed potential candidates."

I don't doubt it. But there's another angle.

Unlike Paul, Cruz and other the middle-aged men considering a run for the White House, Santorum is no longer in office (he lost his Senate seat in 2006). While his rivals erode their profiles with public exposure — especially New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the bridge scandal that still dogs him — Santorum has receded from the spotlight by working as head of a company that makes Christian-themed movies. But the most important thing is this: Santorum came in second in 2012. That matters greatly in a top-down organization like the GOP and party bosses have historically honored that.

For years now, the Republican who came in second the first time came in first the second time. That happened with Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney 2012, all loyal establishment men. But there's a crucial difference. Santorum is not only the heir apparent; he's also a hard-core conservative who won't have the obvious vulnerabilities that doomed Dole, McCain and Romney. The last runner-up to embody the imprimatur of the establishment as well as the conservative base was Ronald Reagan.

I don't mean to suggest that Santorum is the second-coming of Reagan. Far from it. 1980 is not 2016, and the conditions necessary for the rise of 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater's ideological heir are no longer evident, no matter how much Republicans argue to the contrary. But I do mean to suggest that Santorum is likely aware of this symmetry, and that he's going to leverage it. You could say Santorum came out swinging in the Times interview because there's no time to lose in wooing conservatives. You could also say he came out swinging because that's to be expected of the man forcefully reclaiming his place in the party order after a brief absence. To do otherwise is to risk conveying weakness.

There is an exception to heir apparency. Pat Buchanan, the conservative syndicated columnist who once advised Presidents Nixon and Reagan, was the runner-up to Dole in 1996. He never had a chance in 2000 against George W. Bush, who had not run for president before, or against McCain, who quickly claimed the mantle of "outsider" candidate. There was no room left for Buchanan's implacable know-nothingism.

If history is any indication, Santorum's real rivals, even in these nascent stages, are not Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. It is probably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has the potential, like his brother, to circumvent the GOP's natural order. And Santorum has a better chance than Buchanan of beating a Bush. George W. was never a runner-up, but he had that magical mix of establishment credibility and conservative bona fides, particularly in his espousing of evangelical Christianity. Santorum performed best in 2012 among Christian right voters. Even the mighty Jeb Bush can't say that.

Stoehr is managing editor of The Washington Spectator. Follow him @johnastoehr.