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Story highlights

Rick Santorum's strong performance in the 2012 presidential race isn't helping much in polls for 2016

He's trying to shift emphasis away from social issues, and he's sporting a new look, too

(CNN) —  

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who mounted an unexpectedly strong bid for the Republican nomination in 2012, is making another bid for the White House.

Santorum launched his campaign on Wednesday evening from a factory in the blue collar town of Cabot, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, with a starkly populist tone.

He held aloft a piece of coal while telling his family’s story and that of others in western Pennsylvania’s coal country. He said that not only “big government,” but also “big business” had demolished the American middle class.

RELATED: How evangelicals are fighting big business

“As middle America is hollowing out, we can’t sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas. American families don’t need another president tied to big government or big money,” Santorum said during his kick-off rally.

He spoke to building applause before delivering the kicker: “And today is the day we are going to begin to fight back!”

The location is no coincidence, as Santorum drew on his own blue-collar roots, just 10 miles away from Cabot, setting the stage for his campaign’s focus on working-class and middle-class Americans.

Santorum also highlighted his family story in his speech, touching on veterans’ issues, as both of his parents worked for the Veterans Administration.

For a politician who won the Iowa caucus in 2012 and was able to keep his campaign – fueled by support from Christian conservatives – running through the spring, Santorum is starting the 2016 race in a humble place: the bottom. He came in at 3% and 2% in the latest CNN/ORC and Fox News polls, respectively.

That’s a dramatic difference from other Republicans who have sought the nomination again after narrowly losing it in the past. John McCain and Mitt Romney, for example, began their second presidential bids in strong shape after failing to clinch the nomination in earlier bids. McCain and Romney went on to take the nomination, though they lost the general election.

Part of Santorum’s challenge is that he finds himself in a crowded field of politicians seeking the GOP nomination. He would first need to get by top evangelical vote-getters like former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson if he wants to break into the broader GOP field that already includes Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Other heavy-hitters, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will also likely get in the race this summer.

A move toward economy and foreign policy

Known for his close ties to Christian conservatives, Santorum begins the 2016 race as a politician who has evolved from his days on Capitol Hill where he was known for making controversial statements about homosexuality and abortion. While he didn’t disavow those positions, Santorum began to focus more on economic populism in 2012 – a theme he will revive again in 2016.