This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Rick Santorum is tired of being pigeonholed. At least, that's the message the two-time Republican presidential candidate gave to the attendees at an antiabortion conference on Friday.

Santorum, along with at least three other GOP presidential contenders, addressed the National Right to Life Conference on Friday. In his speech, he said that people who claim "the science is settled" on climate change but don't agree that life begins at conception are hypocrites. (For the record, Santorum called climate change "junk science" in 2011.)

"I do not believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception. This is not a matter of debate. It's not a matter of faith," Santorum told the crowd. "Every child at the moment of conception is both living—that embryo is metabolizing—and it is a genetically completely human."

He went on to complain that as soon as he started advocating against abortion, media outlets began labeling him as "ultraconservative," and reporters stopped caring about his stances on the economy or foreign policy.

"Because I led on this, and very few do, you get labeled, and you get put over there at the kids' table," he paused. "By the media."

This is part of a larger strategy for Santorum's campaign to rebrand its candidate as a populist reformer—whom his allies say is the "real Santorum." When Santorum was first elected to the Senate, it was as a candidate who appealed to Pennsylvania's blue-collar workers. But once he entered Congress, he began cementing his position as his party's champion against abortion and gay marriage. In 2003, he famously compared same-sex marriage to "man-on-dog" relationships, and forever earned the ire (and digital backlash) of gay-rights activist Dan Savage.

Santorum has been out of political office for more than eight years, and during that time, public opinion on social issues, particularly gay marriage, has shifted substantially. The more Santorum is painted as a social-issues candidate, the more he risks being depicted as a relic of the past compared with his Republican competitors.

There is some dramatic irony to Santorum's insisting that he is not a social-issues candidate at a gathering of pro-life activists. If he were speaking to the Atlantic Council or the American Enterprise Institute, his actions would reinforce his message. But so long as he continues to play to his base's social activists, all the while insisting that he is more than just a social crusader, his message will continue to get muddled.

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

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