Still carrying a permanent marker in his suit coat pocket, ready to autograph anything passed his way, Rick Santorum looked every bit the candidate for public office at a mid-August gathering of religious voters in the small Iowa city of Waukee. Days later, the former Republican presidential hopeful would be on the stump in Ohio. After that, it was on to South Carolina for a fundraiser benefiting the state Republican Party.
Santorum is not a candidate these days, four months after dropping out of a Republican presidential race in which he won 11 state contests and was a conservative thorn in the side of presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. Even so, the former Pennsylvania senator is experiencing the afterlife of a charmed candidacy, one that set him up for another run at the White House, and made him a coveted endorser for Romney.
Santorum has not said if he wants to run for president again. But after a primary season in which he questioned Romney's conservative credentials and called him the last person Republicans should nominate to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama, Santorum is playing the Republican party soldier. Ahead of the November 6 election, he is trying to help Romney shore up support among the blue-collar and conservative voters who once flocked to Santorum's campaign.
Occasionally, Santorum struggles to do that with a straight face, like when he broke into laughter this month when asked about Romney's 2006 Massachusetts healthcare plan, which Santorum adamantly opposed and was a model for Obama's healthcare overhaul.
During the primary season, Santorum's focus on social issues, namely his staunch opposition to abortion, delighted social conservatives, distracted from Romney's efforts to keep the Republican campaign focused on the economy, and fed Democrats' attempts to cast Republicans as having an anti-women agenda. This week, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's widely criticized comments that victims of "legitimate rape" had natural defenses against pregnancy were a reminder of how wrangling over social issues can hijack the narrative of the Republican campaign, as Santorum did in February.
For Romney's team, the episode also has been an unwanted reminder that for all of the outrage among Republicans over Akin's comments, the Missouri congressman is a reflection of an influential, socially conservative wing of the party that has included Santorum and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Romney's vice presidential running mate.
Santorum has kept a low profile during this week's controversy, but will have a prominent speaking slot on Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, a speech made more intriguing by the flap over Akin. While campaigning for Romney, Santorum, a devout Catholic, has continued to complain about the part of Obama's healthcare law that requires employers to provide no-cost birth control. Santorum says it can force social conservatives to act against their religious beliefs.
Since Romney selected Ryan as his running mate nearly two weeks ago, Santorum has touted Ryan has a candidate who could help broaden Romney's appeal to the social conservatives who supported his own candidacy.
"It's not just the economy, folks," Santorum told a crowd in Waukee. "I hope with Paul Ryan's insertion into the ticket that we will hear a discussion of a broader set of issues because it is important that we understand that this is a cultural crisis in America, a moral crisis in America, not just an economic crisis."
For some conservatives, Santorum is a reminder of what they think Romney is missing by focusing far more on the economy than social issues - even though polls indicate Romney's approach reflects most voters' priorities.
"Romney is definitely different," said Roger Reinhart, 72, who traveled to Iowa from Burnsville, Minnesota, to hear Santorum and like-minded Republicans speak. "We are missing something by not having Rick. But we don't have that much of a choice."
A TEAM PLAYER
After endorsing Romney in a late-night May e-mail that many viewed as half-hearted, Santorum waited more than two months to attend an event in support of the former Massachusetts governor.
Since being invited to speak at the Republican convention, however, Santorum has followed Romney's lead in attacking the Obama administration on issues such as welfare. Santorum's wife, Karen, joined the wives of former Republican presidential aspirants in backing Romney. In places such as Iowa and South Carolina, where Santorum spent months spreading his message focused on traditional values and manufacturing, he often is greeted with affection.
"Wherever he goes, everybody comes up to him and says congratulations," said John Brabender, Santorum's senior strategist.
At the Republican convention, which begins on Monday, Santorum will host a reception in honor of Romney, gathering together leading social conservatives such as James Dobson, Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins. The event is designed to show the party's broad support for Romney. Due to the Akin scandal, it is likely to be a reminder of Republicans' struggles to reconcile their party's no-exceptions approach to opposing abortion with its need to attract more women voters.
Polls have long indicated that most women believe abortion should be legal, and various polls this year have shown Obama with a significant lead over Romney among women, a potentially key deficit in a race that is seen as close. For Santorum, the reception also is likely to carry a not-so-subtle message to other Republicans: The social conservatives are with me.
'HARD TO WALK AWAY'
As he maintains his ties to social conservatives, Santorum is trying to become a political power broker by endorsing several candidates in contested Republican primaries, with mixed success.
In Georgia's 9th Congressional District, he joined former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in backing former talk-radio host Martha Zoller over state Representative Doug Collins. Zoller, who cast herself as the candidate of the anti-tax, small-government Tea party movement, lost to Collins in the Republican primary runoff this week. It is unclear whether Santorum's efforts to influence congressional races mean he is planning another run for president.
Santorum will publish a book on October 2, leading to more publicity. He continues to enlist supporters through his newly formed group, Patriot Voices, which advocates for many of the same socially conservative views he defended during his campaign.
Should Romney lose the election, Santorum's fundraisers and endorsements would give him a head start on another run for the White House, some supporters say. "It's hard to walk away, having come as close as he did," said longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie.