Is Rick Santorum running for president of the United States, or isn't he? I caught him by phone and posed the question: He's not running, then again, he's not not running.
Santorum wasn't being cagey, just practical. Whether the former Pennsylvania senator can raise the millions needed for a presidential bid has yet to be seen.
In the meantime, he has some things to say. For starters: "I have no great burning desire to be president, but I have a burning desire to have a different president of the United States."
Santorum doesn't see anyone in his party who energizes the three legs of the stool, as Ronald Reagan described the Republican issue clusters: the economy, national security and social conservatism.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Santorum is no mystery man. He left deep footprints on Capitol Hill, where he served 16 years — 12 in the Senate — before being defeated in 2006. Since then, he has been at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, primarily pumping out op-eds on national security and terrorism.
Santorum's "Gathering Storm" e-blasts to journalists and others at one time were so frequent they began to feel like Chicken Little or Cassandra warnings of doom.
Though he has tempered the pace of his caveats, Santorum is still serious about threats to U.S. security, the greatest of which, he said, is Iran: "Afghanistan is important, but Iran is more important and we're fumbling." President Barack Obama, he said, doesn't have a plan other than talking, the consequences of which will be much more dire than a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
In the Senate, Santorum sponsored the "Iran Freedom and Support Act," which called for $10 million to support groups opposed to Tehran's government. It passed but never was funded.
Consequently, said Santorum, "When the revolution did come, we had done no spadework and had no way to support them other than to open up Twitter channels. We didn't do the work that could have made a huge difference."
He is equally critical of Obama's handling of the Honduran constitutional crisis and his hail- fellow-well-met attitude toward Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Although the public isn't focused on these concerns, all may change in two years when, Santorum predicts, the economy will be better and Iran may export a nuclear weapon.
"You never know what the important issues are going to be and you better have someone who is prepared on all fronts," he said.
Some fronts are problematic for a candidate such as Santorum.
Pro-life and pro-traditional family, Santorum is an irritant to many. But he insists such labels oversimplify, saying being pro-life and pro-family ultimately means being pro-limited government.
When you have strong families and respect for life, he said, "the requirements of government are less. You can have lower taxes and limited government."
Sometimes called the conscience of Senate Republicans, Santorum may be viewed as the nation's superego, reminding us of our moral charge at a time of swift cultural change. But it is human nature to resist those perceived as morally superior. Despite friends' insistence he is nonjudgmental and humble, communicating that may be his greatest challenge.
Otherwise, Santorum is considered a fighter, a team player and a principled insider.
Lobbyist Scott Hatch described him to me: "He may break eggs, but he gets results — more than anybody else I've seen in there."
Whatever evolves, Santorum is sure to shake up the debate. The problem for voters may be in deciphering myths and fables. Is Santorum a Chicken Little, who mistakenly insisted the sky was falling? Or is he the tragic Cassandra, a prophet whose curse was never to be believed?
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP