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This week Rick Santorum returns to Iowa for the first time since last year’s presidential campaign. For Santorum, whose victory in the 2012 caucuses started an improbable run at the Republican nomination, the visit will look like a campaign swing: an appearance at a party fundraiser, a visit to the Iowa State Fair, a speech at a gathering of social conservatives. Santorum hasn’t signaled whether he will run again in 2016 and is unlikely to make any sort of formal declaration soon. But the trip will certainly send the message that he’s getting ready to run.

If he does, one thing is already clear: Santorum will again be underestimated. In 2012, he won 11 primaries and caucuses, making him the solid second-place finisher in a party that has a long history of nominating the candidate who finished second the last time around. (See Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.) And yet now, no one — no one — is suggesting Santorum will be the frontrunner in 2016, should he choose to run. As far as the political handicapping goes, Santorum’s 2012 victories don’t seem to count for much.

There are reasons for that. A significant number of people, including moderate Republicans, think of Santorum as a sort of religious politician, obsessed with social issues and motivated largely by his pro-life convictions and Catholic faith. Santorum certainly fed that perception at a few crucial points in the 2012 race with comments on contraception and the role of religion in politics. But anyone who watched his campaign for more than a few minutes saw a candidate with a wide-ranging agenda, one who spoke at far greater length about the economy and national security than about social issues.

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