This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Rick Santorum is in the mood to criticize Republicans. Standing behind a lectern, without a prepared speech, the suit-clad candidate delivers a riff about the GOP's inability to connect with working-class voters. Promises of tax cuts and balanced budgets alone won't win the presidency anymore, he tells a mostly full hotel ballroom of older, white Pennsylvania Republicans.

"We're tired, and we're old, and it's not working," the White House wannabe says, as the attendees nod in approval. "And the problem is America is different; it's a different country. The problems aren't the same as the ones that confronted Ronald Reagan."

No talk of partial-birth abortions. No denouncing contraception. He doesn't mention sodomy, not even once. And if his political advisers get their way, this is the only Rick Santorum we'll see during this 2016 contest.

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Santorum's second try for the presidency, his team thinks, will depend on voters believing he is a fighter for blue-collar America and forgetting that he actually likes spouting off about social issues. So his circle has crafted a strategy meant not so much to rebrand him but to bring him back to being the populist challenger who first won office 25 years ago.

Santorum's second try for the presidency, his team thinks, will depend on voters believing he is a fighter for blue-collar America and forgetting that he actually likes spouting off about social issues.

It's a smart strategy, if it works. Since the days of Bill Clinton, the Republican Party has improved its take of the working-class vote. In fact, white men without a college degree are now among the most reliable voters for the Republican Party. A message aimed at them—something Mitt Romney struggled to craft in 2012—could help in both a primary and general election. And for an underdog like Santorum, it might prove the differentiator he needs to separate himself from a pack of better-funded and more highly regarded rivals.

There's just one problem: Santorum likes to talk, and he likes to talk about things decidedly off message. Indeed, Santorum didn't make news last week in that hotel ballroom by talking about Ronald Reagan. He made news when, as a guest on Hugh Hewitt's conservative radio show, he said he wouldn't attend the wedding of a loved one who was gay due to his religious convictions. The comment drew grimaces from the former senator's advisers. For a candidate once best-known for supporting laws that outlawed sodomy—and the swift and public backlash it drew from gay-rights supporters—it was an all-too-familiar script.

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The biggest obstacle to Santorum transforming his image is Santorum. His controversial beliefs on social issues combined with his combative and candid disposition yields an authenticity others lack, but it also generates attention his team doesn't want.

"We understand the reality that he's a warrior on those issues and not afraid to talk about them," says John Brabender, Santorum's longtime political guru. "So often he's the go-to guy on them. The paradox is it takes away from coverage on things that are extremely important. Strategically, there's a much more concerted effort to making sure that doesn't happen this cycle."

Santorum's focus on blue-collar voters isn't completely fresh. His last presidential run, which landed him second in the GOP field, included a working-class theme, most notably in his speech after the Iowa caucuses, when he invoked his immigrant heritage. He followed that bid with a 2014 book titled Blue Collar Conservatives.

His team is building from there, with advisers drafting a three-part strategy—agenda, personal biography, and message—that they think can make him the choice of voters turned off by more well-heeled contenders.

Already, Santorum has a platform that stands out from his rivals. He's the only one in the pack, for example, who has proposed raising the minimum wage and reducing not just illegal immigration, but legal immigration. "[It] is destroying opportunity for lower- and middle-income workers by flooding this nation with both legal and illegal immigrants who are almost all unskilled," he said last week. Plus, the candidate will soon release an economic and tax plan that Brabender says will focus on wage stagnation and alleged tax abuses by corporate America.

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This image of a populist reformer, his friends say, is the real Santorum. It's certainly who he was when he entered Congress as a 32-year-old nobody who pulled off an improbable upset over an entrenched Democratic incumbent. In that campaign, he ran hard against a congressional pay-raise and preached empathy for union workers who lived in the state's economically stagnant western half, along the Mon Valley. "He had the heart of old blue-collar Pennsylvania in his district," says David Patti, a friend of Santorum's since they were both state government staffers in the 1980s and who now serves as president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council. "The area with steel mills that got hit hard in the '70s and '80s."

It wasn't until later in his career, after he won another surprising victory over a Democratic incumbent in 1994 to become a senator, that he gradually earned a reputation as a divisive figure on social issues. Some advisers point to his Senate floor sparring with Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton on legislation to end partial-birth abortions as the moment his reputation changed.

Wherever it began, his reputation was cemented during a 2003 interview with the Associated Press, when he compared gay marriage to "man-on-dog" weddings. Years later, in the run-up to his reelection campaign for the Senate, he wrote in his book that women would be happier staying at home than entering the workforce. Santorum lost his reelection by nearly 20 points in 2006.

Santorum tried to shed the memories of the defeat by retrofitting his message in 2012, and the populist themes he struck combined with his built-in support among evangelicals were enough to win the Iowa caucuses. But his old reputation haunted him in New Hampshire, where the candidate wasn't confronted with social-issues questions as much as he seemed to seek them out. "We'd go to colleges in New Hampshire, and there'd be an older woman with rosary beads in the front row," says one Santorum adviser. "And behind her a young person with a marijuana-leaf t-shirt, and even though both had their hands raised, Santorum would call on the younger person for a question. And of course she'd ask about gay marriage, and he'd give his answer."

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Santorum finished fifth, a momentum-crushing defeat that a late surge of victories couldn't overcome.

For this presidential contest to unfold differently, Santorum needs to check his instincts at the door. He needs to stick to his economic policy prescriptions, embrace his working-class biography, and deliver talking points that work in the Rust Belt, not the Bible Belt. The support he'll receive from evangelicals is already baked in, his advisers say, and now he needs to expand his coalition.

His allies say he knows it, but how he does it is another issue.

Santorum's advisers say they might try to limit his access to reporters—reflecting a belief within his team that this problem is due at least in part to the media's desire to ask questions, not their candidate's inability to stop himself from answering in the most damaging way possible. But avoiding the mics could dent Santorum's populist credentials, says one campaign adviser, conceding they haven't yet landed on a fix for Santorum's mouth.

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His team isn't opposed to working the refs, either. Brabender suggests the media's "laziness" can lead it to typecast candidates. "In Rick's case, [he's] somebody who spent 12 years in the Senate and four years in House. ... There are all these different experiences he has that people just don't know," he says. "It's our responsibility as a campaign to tell people about it."

But the odds are long that political reporters will be pressured into going easy on Santorum, something Santorum's friends acknowledge. They think his best and perhaps only hope is that he can simply be a better candidate now. "Anytime you do things the first time, you look back and say, 'I could have done this better or that better,'"Š" says Jake Corman, another longtime friend of Santorum's who is now Senate majority leader in Pennsylvania. "I think experience running last time will help him immeasurably."

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When asked if the hot-blooded Santorum will choose to control himself, Corman laughs. "He clearly has the talent and ability to do that," Corman says. "We'll see how the campaign goes."

So far, he is. Back in that hotel ballroom in Camp Hill, Santorum's speech is well-received. He earns applause, a few standing ovations, and a brief chant of "Run, Rick, Run." And at the end, he works the room quickly before dashing out to get home before his daughter's prom begins. He stops beside his car to let me ask one last question.

"Is it frustrating that people still want to refer to you as the social-issue candidate?" I ask.

"I don't know, did I talk about social issues at all in that speech?" he responds.

No, he didn't. And if he wants to win the Republican nomination, he'll need to keep it that way.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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