Given that he barely registers in early polling for 2016, it's easy to forget how close Rick Santorum came to denying Mitt Romney the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Santorum narrowly defeated Romney in the Iowa caucuses, and just when it seemed that Romney was on course to fend off right-wing challenges from Santorum and Newt Gingrich, Santorum upset Romney in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota in early February, scrambling the contest for the party's nod. As the primary in Romney's native Michigan approached later that month, his campaign appeared to be on the line; surveys suggested that Santorum stood a good chance of winning the state, and a Romney loss there would potentially have proven a fatal blow to his candidacy. On voting day, however, Romney barely edged Santorum, defeating him by three points and inching closer to the prize.
If Santorum's strong 2012 performance seems bizarre now, it hardly made much more sense at the time: In his previous election, Santorum lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by a whopping 18 points, and he had done nothing of note since then. But Santorum had a crucial advantage over Romney: Unlike the onetime Massachusetts moderate, he spoke the language of the party's right-wing base, serving up rhetorical red meat and channeling the right's cultural grievances in a way Romney never could. Few ordinary people could identify a single accomplishment during Santorum's 12 years in the Senate, but many know him as the guy who warned that gay marriage could led to "man on dog" intercourse, compared same-sex nuptials to 9/11, blasted President Obama for going to Indonesia in order to "bow to more Muslims," and condemned contraception as "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."
But now that he's gearing up for a repeat presidential bid, Santorum is vowing to avoid such incendiary remarks. Speaking with NBC News, Santorum said that unlike 2012, a campaign in which he generated headlines for his anti-birth control, anti-gay, and generally anti-20th century views, he would steer clear of "crazy stuff that doesn't have anything to do with anything" in 2016. He went on to say that he too often said "dumb things" in the past.
Considering that Santorum hasn't altered his views on the inflammatory issues that have defined his career, it appears that he has decided that he stands a better chance of winning if he keeps such "crazy stuff" to himself. Of course, it's hard to see the inveterate culture warrior completely abandoning his hardline social conservatism, given that "Santorum" is basically a synonym for "hardline social conservatism" ... and that one other thing. But who knows? Former Bain Capital CEO Mitt Romney, who's also considering another run, now says he won't run as a businessman, and Rick Perry is now trying to look the part of the bookish intellectual, so maybe Santorum will undergo a wholesale reinvention too.