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Santorum says he 'takes the bullets' for conservative causes

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Deputy Political Director
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Rick Santorum: 'I'm ready to lead'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Santorum announced his candidacy near Pennsylvania coal mine where grandfather worked
  • A two-term U.S. senator, Santorum lost re-election bid in 2006
  • Santorum a favorite among social conservatives, influential in GOP primary process

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(CNN) -- Rick Santorum likes to tout his conservative credentials.

"I've been a great, consistent leader of the conservative cause," the former two-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania told CNN's John King recently. "I've been someone who's had ideas, fought for those ideas and have been able to accomplish things."

Santorum formally announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination on June 6, telling an audience that, "I'm ready to lead. I'm ready to do what has to be done for the next generation."

Santorum made his kickoff comments at a campaign event in Somerset County in the western part of his home state, near where his grandfather worked in a coal mine after coming to America from Italy.

Santorum said his grandfather came to Somerset County to escape fascist Italy, to "give his children, my dad, who 7 years old when he came in 1930, the opportunity for freedom, to live your dreams, because he knew America believed in him, believed in people, gave people a shot, if they worked hard, they could succeed."

Santorum is arguably the most frequent flyer in the battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Since 2009, he has made 15 trips to Iowa, where the caucus is the first contest in the election cycle, 18 to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, and 15 to South Carolina, the state that holds the first primary in the South.

More Santorum coverage on the CNN Political Ticker

Late last year, Santorum started building up staff in these crucial early voting states.

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On May 3, he announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, filing papers with the Federal Election Commission. Two days later, he participated in the first GOP presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina. Santorum will appear June 13 at a CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader debate in the Granite State.

For all his travel and appearances, Santorum still has very low name recognition among most Americans, and according to just about every poll, he registers in the low single digits nationally among Republican voters when it comes to the choice for their party's next presidential nominee. Because of his poll numbers and because he faces much better-funded rivals, Santorum faces long odds in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

But because of his strong opposition to abortion rights and gay rights, Santorum remains popular with many socially conservative voters who have long had an influential role in the GOP primary process. Earlier this spring, Santorum made headlines by winning a much-watched straw poll at the Greenville County, South Carolina, Republican convention.

At the Faith and Freedom conference, a recent gathering of social conservatives in Washington, Santorum highlighted his credentials saying, "I had always been pro-life, I had always been for traditional marriage, but I had always been like a lot of folks -- a lot of folks who weren't here last year but are here this year who come and make the pledge, vow to social conservatives that they'll check the boxes, they'll be for the things social conservatives care about. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't just take the pledge, I take the bullets."

Santorum also emphasizes his pro-Israel stance as well as his experience in the Senate when it comes to foreign policy, which could distinguish him from most of his rivals.

And he is hyping his fiscal conservative credentials. In recent interviews, Santorum suggested that House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget is not strong enough, saying "not even Paul Ryan and his budget now has the temerity to go after Social Security,"

Santorum was elected to the House in 1990, at age 32, and first elected to the Senate four years later. He lost his 2006 re-election bid by 18 points to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. and until last year was largely out of public view except for appearances on the Fox News Channel.

He's married with seven children. His youngest, Bella, was born in 2008 with a serious genetic disorder (Trisomy 18), which in most cases is fatal.

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