WASHINGTON (AP) - He exceeded the political world's expectations by scoring a second-place finish in the race for the Republican presidential nomination four years ago. Yet as he readies a second White House run, Rick Santorum may struggle even to qualify for the debate stage in 2016.
An aggressive advocate for conservative family values, the 57-year-old Republican is announcing his presidential intentions on Wednesday. He is all but certain to enter the contest - one that would test his clout in a dramatically different presidential field.
The former Pennsylvania senator planned to make his announcement surrounded by factory workers on the floor of a thriving business near his western Pennsylvania hometown, a carefully scripted setting designed to showcase his focus on the working class. A major player in 2012, he opens this political season almost as an afterthought in a 2016 race expected to feature more than a dozen high-profile Republicans - most of them newcomers to presidential politics.
Santorum says his experience could pay dividends the second time around. Most of the GOP's recent presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and President Ronald Reagan among them, needed more than one campaign to find success in the nomination race.
"This is a long process," Santorum told reporters recently. "One of the things that I feel very comfortable with - I've been through this process before." He said it's a "completely wide open race."
The prospective Republican field already includes four sitting senators, four governors, four former governors, two business leaders and a retired neurosurgeon.
Santorum won 11 states in the last presidential primary contest, yet his early longshot status may keep him out of presidential debates altogether.
Only those who place in the top 10 of national polls will be allowed to participate in the first Republican presidential debate in August, according to guidelines released by network host Fox News. Santorum and fellow 2012 candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are among those on the bubble.
Much of Santorum's past success was tied to his performance in Iowa, where he scored a narrow victory over Mitt Romney in the nation's first presidential nominating contest. Facing little competition for the state's influential evangelical vote, Santorum impressed voters by touring Iowa's 99 counties in a pickup truck.
Iowa will continue to be a focus in 2016, according to spokesman Matt Beynon, who said Santorum's rollout tour would begin in Iowa on Thursday and Friday and move to South Carolina on Saturday and Sunday.
His road to relevancy this time won't be easy, however.
"It's going to be much more competitive," said Foster Friess, a prominent Santorum donor who will attend Wednesday's announcement.
Santorum faces considerable competition for his party's social conservatives. The list of candidates already courting religious voters includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. And like Santorum, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a Catholic.
Questions remain about Santorum's ability to raise money as well.
Expressing confidence, Beynon said Santorum would benefit from a donor network that has only grown in the years since his first run.
"He would anticipate having more money," Beynon said. "That was certainly a factor in his decision."
And Friess, who previously gave more than $2 million to a pro-Santorum super PAC in 2012, said he would continue to support Santorum's White House ambitions, although he plans to avoid donating directly large amounts to the campaign or a supportive super PAC, both of which would disclose their donors.
"Any giving I'm doing is going to be lower-profile and less-noticed," Friess said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, on the ground in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, Santorum starts off as well-known among voters and key activists. But a new crop of Republican competitors like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been aggressively touring the states in recent weeks as well. And some voters prefer a fresh face in an election season expected to feature Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Democratic side.
"The electorate is so unpredictable, I wouldn't make a betting guess for him or against him," Iowa National Republican committeeman Steve Scheffler said of Santorum. "But he's got a lot of work to do - like the others."
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