He was one of Mitt Romney’s fiercest competitors for the Republican presidential nomination.
But on Tuesday, at the opening night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Rick Santorum played the loyal soldier to his party’s standard-bearer, launching a spirited attack against President Obama over welfare reform and reinforcing his own brand as an impassioned opponent of abortion.
Mr. Santorum, who emerged as the favorite of social conservatives during the primaries, also made much of his own experiences on the campaign trail, suggesting the 50-something former senator from Pennsylvania may want to take another run at the presidency, either in four or eight years.
But Santorum’s first order of business was to make the case against Mr. Obama.
“Under President Obama, the dream of freedom and opportunity has become a nightmare of dependency with almost half of America receiving some sort of government assistance,” Santorum said.
“This summer,” the ex-senator continued, “he showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare.”
Fact-checkers deny that the Obama administration has eliminated the work requirement attached to the 1996 welfare reform. The waivers, some given at the request of Republican governors, give states flexibility in how they handle their welfare rolls, as long as they maintain a 20 percent increase in the number of people getting work.
But it’s campaign season, and welfare is a hot topic – ready made for the night of the convention dubbed “We Built It,” which centers on the theme of hard work. And the Republicans have no better amplifier of hot-button social issues than Santorum.
The Pennsylvanian was scheduled to speak early in the evening, but convention organizers were reportedly so excited about his remarks that they moved him later, to the 9 o’clock hour, not far from the evening’s highlights, speeches by Romney’s wife, Ann, and keynoter Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey.
In his remarks, Santorum made clear that he had acquired a taste for the travel and contact with Americans that came with his first national campaign. He spoke of crisscrossing the nation with his family and of encountering the American Dream and its “strong grip.” Santorum talked about the hands that he had grasped – the hands of farmers and ranchers, restaurant workers and men and women in uniform, the hands of those “refusing to give up hope.”
Santorum shared, as he did often on the trail, the story of his disabled young daughter Bella, and moved the arena of conventiongoers to a standing ovation as he professed his devotion to “all of God's children – born and unborn.”
As the winner of the second-highest total of convention delegates, Santorum had clearly earned his speaking slot at the convention, analysts say. In fact, many of Romney’s other primary foes aren’t scheduled to speak, including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and businessman Herman Cain.
But Santorum’s role at the convention goes beyond his 15-minute speech. He represents an important emissary for Romney to the party’s social-conservative base, a key part of the Republican electorate that has struggled to trust Romney’s bona fides as a conservative.
On Wednesday, Santorum plays host to a reception called “Patriots for Romney-Ryan 2012″ here in Tampa, featuring many prominent social conservatives, including: Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins, Faith and Freedom Coalition leader Ralph Reed, Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser, and president of the group American Values, Gary Bauer. Also slated to attend, according to ABC News, are social conservative grand dame Phyllis Schlafly, direct mail guru Richard Viguerie, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.