Rick Santorum's Happy to Play the Underdog, Again

If he runs, he'll be carrying an economic message that he thinks other Republicans will not match.

NEW YORK—Rick Santorum wanted to talk to his mom before he spoke to National Journal.

The former and perhaps future presidential candidate arrived here Friday for an interview in a busy Manhattan Starbucks, but before it started, his brother Dan (a South Carolina tennis instructor with no interest in politics) handed him a phone.

"Hey, mom," Santorum said. "How about that, huh? You didn't think you'd get me [on the phone]."

Few voters know much about Santorum's personal life. To most, he's just a culture warrior fixated on gay marriage and abortion. But as he considers another campaign in 2016, Santorum is trying to create a more multidimensional image, both of himself and his agenda for the country.

In the interview last week, Santorum talked about what he would bring to the GOP field that no other presidential candidate can, why he's happy few consider him a serious threat to win the nomination, and whether forced rectal feeding is torture. Santorum also emphasized that while most people expect him to run for president, he has yet to decide for himself.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

If you run, how will this campaign be different from the last?

The biggest thing is this race will allow me to focus on where I want to take the country, where the country needs to go, and less about establishing my bona fides to be able to be in the race. I think the last time, we had to introduce ourselves to folks and say, hey wait a minute, here are my positions, here's what I've done. I think on a lot of issues that's pretty clear to most people."¦ Now it's more laying out a vision for the country. And that's the exciting part for me, because I see a country that's hurting, but still is strong and has tremendous potential.

How will the field in 2016 be different than the one you faced in 2012?

You gotta remember the prospective field in 2010 was different than the real field in 2012. And that will be the case here too. The prospective field of 2014 won't be the field of 2016.

Does it bother you that when reporters talk about 2016, they don't mention your name much?

I've never been the media darling, or the chattering-class darling. I've always said one of the great blessings in my political career is I've always been underestimated. And that really has, as it turned out, been a great asset. Instead of complaining about it, I've learned to embrace it and take advantage of what opportunities it presents.

It lets you sneak up on people?

Look, the last time around, it turned out to be a pretty good thing to be under the radar the whole time and not be shot at by everybody at the very first go. And you had an opportunity to build out your team. And so, if we do this again, it looks like we'll have a similar opportunity this time around. Usually you don't get two chances at that.

Are you worried that Sen. Ted Cruz would siphon support in your evangelical base?

What we're looking at is a message that is focused on making sure that we have a strong and growing economy that reaches all Americans. We have been talking about being both pro-growth and pro-worker, valuing all work and focusing on people who are being hurt in the economy today "¦ and I think that differentiates me from, frankly, everyone else in the field. You look at the policies I'm advocating, they're not typical cookie-cutter Republican policies.

You don't see any other candidates trying to reach blue-collar America?

I see a lot of the same Republican rhetoric out of pretty much everybody. I think it's stale. I don't think it's effective. And it's one of the reasons that we have a hard time winning the presidency because we've not had a message focused on those who are hurting in America, and who are the voters out there that are disenchanted with both parties. Instead of trying to play special-interest politics, which both sides do, we need to focus in on a broad swath of Americans out there who are feeling disenchanted with both political parties.

I wanted to talk to you about something in the news this week, after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report about the CIA. Waterboarding and rectal feeding—are those things torture?

I think if you look at definition of torture as something that causes pain and physical pain, and so you have to look at it in that context, and whether waterboarding fits that. I don't think it does. Is it psychological? Yes. But there are a lot of things that are done to people to do psychological things to them to get them to provide information.

What about rectal feeding?

I'm not real familiar with how that went down, to be very honest with you. Does it meet that test? I'd probably have to examine that a little bit more. But really the question is, is it appropriate to use these techniques, as was the case, in a ticking-bomb scenario, where we legitimately, not illegitimately but legitimately, believed that there's an imminent attack that these people had that could have cost thousands of lives?

From my perspective, I think you have to put that in that context. And I would say that using enhanced interrogation techniques were appropriate given the magnitude of the threat that presented itself.