Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a rising GOP star who lost his seat to Sen. Bob Casey (D) in the Democratic wave of 2006, will visit Iowa in October, Politico's Jonathan Martin reported Wednesday. Is Santorum a serious contender for the 2012 ticket, up there with the likes of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee? Here are five reasons to take his trip to Iowa seriously, five reasons to laugh, and, as a bonus, two reasons to do neither:

Reasons to Laugh:

1) The last time Santorum ran in an election, he lost--badly, and to a newcomer to federal campaigns. Bob Casey, previously Pennsylvania's auditor general and state treasurer, had won statewide races, but hadn't held as high-profile an office as Senate or House. He beat Sen. Santorum by 18 percentage points. That was ugly.

2) Santorum has a Google problem. Just Google him.

3) He's been out of politics for a while. He hasn't governed anything lately. His opponents might say, hey, Sen. Santorum, what have you done since 2006? Granted, his top competitors have either a) resigned their governorship (Palin), b) spoken out against the Employee Free Choice Act (Mitt Romney), or c) hosted a show on Fox News (Huckabee). But all those things are higher profile than what Santorum has been up to, as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Potential opponents have either been part of the national political discussion (see above), or they've been governing states (Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Bobby Jindal).

4) Santorum can't win with people who aren't conservatives. This may seem like a thin reason why he wouldn't contend in a primary where most of the voters are, after all, conservatives, but as Martin notes in his story, Iowa's voters are savvy. If they want someone who will compete for moderates in a general election--or at least someone with national star power--Santorum isn't their man.

5) He's a casualty of '06. Santorum's loss was one of the biggest for Republicans in 2006, the year that Democrats took over Congress, and began their overall takeover of DC. It was bad times for Republicans--and no one wants to drudge that up and relive it. If Santorum's pure conservatism and neocon foreign policy views play to his advantage, they could also work against him: he could be seen as a conservative of days past, with socially conservative views that don't match up with the nation's evolving consensus on things like abortion and homosexuality (Santorum is against it), at the same time being a part of the neocon movement that's been defeated. If conservatives want to start over and rebuild, Santorum may be the ghost of elections past.

Bonus (and speculative) reason to laugh: Depending on how he does at winning Iowa's key activists and political figures, he may have trouble in the Iowa caucuses, if he runs up against a candidate with populist appeal like Palin or Huckabee, who could perhaps turn out caucus-goers better than an establishment conservative.

Reasons to Take Him Seriously:

1) Santorum is a pure conservative. Above contradictions aside, this is good for him. Mitt Romney is viewed by some as a flip-flopper who governed a state that's full of Democrats; Mike Huckabee's fiscal conservative credentials can be attacked. Santorum is pure; he's clean. There's not much you can point at to say "Rick Santorum isn't really a conservative." He's a pure movement conservative, and he'd be vying for an election among the GOP's core conservative base.

2) He can raise the money. Having served in the House, and then the Senate, from 1991 to 2007, and having served as Senate Republican Conference chair, he has connections at the top level of Republican politics and could put some real money into his campaign. Maybe not Romney money, but that's a different story.

3) People aren't fatigued of Santorum the way they might be of Romney, Huckabee, and Palin. Those three gained lots and lots of exposure during the 2008 election, and since then they've all worked hard to retain their share of the national spotlight--so much so that they might be overexposed. As Republicans become tired of their minority status, they may also tire of the leading political figures they have. Sarah Palin is a veritable pop star; Huckabee is on Fox News. No one's tired of Rick Santorum.

4) From his long time in the House and Senate, Santorum has a wide array of issues he's worked on. Abortion, farming, welfare reform, autism, pension reform, religion, and national security are all in his repertoire. He's got the bases covered, which means that if people come up to him in Iowa and New Hampshire and ask him about an issue they care about, he'll often be able to say "You know, I actually worked on legislation on that during my years in Congress." Involvement in national security issues may set him apart from governors, who haven't had a chance to deal with international policy during their careers.

5) The GOP base is shrinking, and this could work in Santorum's favor. He's so socially conservative that he might not be able to compete in a general election, but as the Republican Party loses its moderates, that base is becoming more and more conservative--and more demanding of conservative credentials from its politicians. As that base shrinks, he might become more viable.

Bonus Reasons to Neither Laugh Nor Take Santorum Seriously:

1) Santorum clearly wants to raise his national profile--he told as much to Politico--but maybe he's not interested in a 2012 run. Maybe he wants to sell the book he's writing on the "gathering storm" of the 21st century, as the Ethics and Public Policy Center's website puts it. Maybe he wants to raise the profile of his work at that organization. There are other reasons, though he did tell Politico that "we'll see" if he fits the bill with Iowa caucus goers.

2) It's a long way to 2012. John Ensign went to Iowa too.

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