Can Rick Santorum escape his past?

Rick Santorum announces 2016 presidential bid
Rick Santorum announces 2016 presidential bid

    JUST WATCHED

    Rick Santorum announces 2016 presidential bid

MUST WATCH

Rick Santorum announces 2016 presidential bid 04:54

Story highlights

  • Rick Santorum made controversial statements about homosexuality as a senator
  • He's now focusing more on working-class economics as he launches a second presidential campaign

Washington (CNN)If any Republican presidential candidate symbolizes the party's struggle to come to terms with how to discuss rapidly changing social mores, it's Rick Santorum.

More than a decade ago when he was a Pennsylvania senator, Santorum famously compared homosexuality to bestiality and his name became a punchline for gay rights activists. But earlier this month, the same man said it was his "responsibility" to "love and accept" transgender people when he was asked a question about Olympian Bruce Jenner's recent revelation that he was not a man.
"If he says he's a woman, then he's a woman," Santorum said in South Carolina.
    The response from Santorum, who formally announced his presidential campaign on Wednesday, reflects the belief of many Republicans that focusing on divisive social issues won't help the party win in 2016. Santorum tried to focus his 2012 campaign on a populist economic agenda but his message was often crowded out by the controversial comments he made over the course of his career. The question for Santorum is whether he'll be more successful in controlling the narrative this time around.

    READ: Rick Santorum runs for White House again
    Social issues won't disappear from Santorum's repertoire in his new campaign -- after all, he can't afford to lose support from the evangelical voters who helped make him a surprisingly strong candidate in 2012. But he will focus more of his rhetoric on an economic message that appeals to "working families," campaign strategist John Brabender told CNN.
    "No one has become the voice of working families. He's going to talk a lot about how he wants to be that person," Brabender told CNN. On social issues, Brabender added, "he needs to show that we don't always need to agree with one another, but that doesn't mean we can't show compassion and understanding for one another."
    That's not the perception of Santorum that has formed during his years in public life. Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey was once overheard calling him "an a--hole" and former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested he was "a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal." Perhaps most famously, Santorum's constant drumbeat on homosexuality elicited the scourge of gay rights activists, prompting a fierce online campaign against him.
    Santorum's 2016 strategy was on display last weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the Family Leadership Regional Summit, where Santorum and Mike Huckabee—who won the Iowa Republican caucus in 2008—both aimed to woo evangelical voters in the state. A Des Moines Register columnist reported a stark difference between Huckabee and Santorum's approach, noting that Huckabee had "one of the darkest outlooks" of any candidate to date, while Santorum took the opportunity to expound on his economic plan.
    "It appears Huckabee is doubling down on a religious-conservative message, while Santorum seems to be trying to broaden his appeal within the Republican Party," the Register's Kathie Obradovich wrote from the event.
    Since he formally ended his campaign in April 2012, Santorum, who continued to travel and meet with supporters through a non-profit group launched after the primaries, wrote two books, including "Blue Collar Conservatives," which outlined his economic agenda. And during that time he has worked to frame his positions in a way that he hopes will have more appeal, even if his opinions on social issues remain similar to the past.
    "If you look at the message, it hasn't changed. It's how you deliver it," longtime Santorum aide and spokesman Matt Beynon told CNN. "It's not changing your principles and it's certainly not pulling the wool over people's eyes either. It's being honest about where you stand, but you learn how to deliver a message, and I think that comes through experience."
    Santorum gained that "experience" four years ago, while running a shoestring campaign. Santorum, who barely registered on early polls in the run-up to the primary contests, edged out frontrunner Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses and went on to win 10 more states before he conceded.
    "In 2012, Rick was too often defined very singularly on social issues," Brabender said. "What I think what was missing was people understanding his total vision."
    While Santorum has blamed part of that on the press for constantly asking questions about social issues, his campaign aides know it's ultimately up to him stay disciplined.
    "He's not going to allow the media to define him," Beynon said. "He's going to push back a little more on that."
    In 2012, Santorum's handlers noticed that it was when he was fatigued—mostly in the late afternoon—that he made the controversial statements that would dominate headlines. In an effort to keep his refreshed, his aides put him on an activity regimen during lunch hour, which included bowling, golf and even time in a batting cage. They quickly found that if they gave him time to relax, the candidate was more likely to stay on message through his afternoon events. "A game a day keeps the gaffes away," aides said at the time.
    Of course, with another grueling primary ahead, it will take more than a round of bowling this time to keep him on message.