WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Rick Santorum's crushing 18-point loss in his 2006 re-election bid in Pennsylvania seems an unlikely launching pad for a White House run.
Yet the outspoken conservative, once a rising star in the GOP, has gotten an early jump on the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, with visits to early primary and caucus states, including New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. He's hired two veteran GOP operatives in Iowa and one in New Hampshire.
As he tests the presidential waters, Santorum, 52, says he may not decide on whether to run until summer. But he said he's getting positive feedback in his visits to key states to court their local armies of conservative activists and party leaders, who often play outsized roles in the early GOP primary process.
"I've taken that encouragement seriously," he said.
A sharp critic of abortion rights, Santorum has garnered headlines by questioning why President Barack Obama, as the nation's first black president, is willing to deny civil rights to fetuses.
The former senator linked civil rights and abortion during an interview last month with the Christian Broadcasting Network, saying that for decades, slavery allowed African-Americans to be treated like property. He said fetuses are denied the right to life because they are considered property.
If he runs, Santorum would be a long shot in a field that could include former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
"She's a rock star," Santorum said of Palin. "She's a megastar. You can't look at her and not think that she would have a huge impact on the nomination."
Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist in New Hampshire, said it's hard for second-tier candidates like Santorum to break through without the right message, tens of millions of dollars in cash and a broad political network.
"Everyone who isn't a household name and doesn't have a national organization will have a hard, hard time," Carney said. "People want to know, 'How are you going to win this thing?'"
Santorum said there still could be an opening for someone with his strong social and fiscal conservative views.
"I can look at it and say, 'I was there doing the things everybody says we should be doing, and I was doing them when they weren't necessarily the most popular thing to do,'" he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Santorum hopes the same conservative streak that helped sink his re-election bid in the swing state of Pennsylvania could prove to be an asset in GOP primaries.
"What you're proposing matters, No. 1, and your authenticity matters," he said.
While Santorum would be a long shot, he has appeal with social conservatives who have strong sway in Iowa's leadoff Republican caucuses, said Arthur Sanders, the Levitt distinguished professor of politics at Drake University in Iowa.
"He appeals to that crowd," said Sanders. "He's very attractive in that regard to a lot of the Christian conservatives here in Iowa."
A leading voice against same-sex marriage as well as abortion rights, Santorum was elected to the House in 1990 at age 32.
He was front and center in the "Gang of Seven," the first-term Republicans who successfully pushed House leaders to disclose which members had abused their checking privileges at the now-defunct House bank. The issue helped the GOP capture the House in 1994 and helped Santorum win a Senate seat that same year.
He emerged as a conservative firebrand willing to stand up to the political establishment and quickly became the Senate's No. 3 Republican.
Santorum has sometimes waded into controversy, too. He lost his Senate seat by double digits in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey when critics took aim at his book "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good." Santorum wrote that in some families both parents work outside the home when it's not financially necessary. Santorum later said he was talking about upper-income families.
Since his re-election loss, Santorum has worked at a conservative think tank, given speeches and been a commentator on the Fox News Channel.
"Pennsylvania is a tough state for a conservative to win," Santorum said, stressing that he stuck to his conservative views despite the 2006 Democratic tide. "It's not like I ran to the middle. I was going out and talking about things that probably caused me to lose more."