WASHINGTON -- Unrest in the Middle East, disasters in Japan and airstrikes in Libya have thrust foreign affairs into the top news headlines.
These events also have diverted the building 2012 presidential campaign, forcing Republican hopefuls off their near-constant refrains on the economy and national debt.
Rick Santorum, the former two-term U.S. senator from Penn Hills who is all but certain to run for president, hopes to capitalize on the shift by showing off his foreign policy expertise -- something that distinguishes him in a field largely composed of current and former governors.
"I think it does highlight the difference in the level of experience and knowledge in dealing with these types of issues," Mr. Santorum said in a phone interview.
"Not only was I in the Senate for 12 years, but I was very, very active in national security issues and actually took the lead on a lot of national security issues, particularly focused on the Middle East, which is not just the hot spot now but an ongoing hot spot."
He has taken a hawkish stance on the Libyan engagement, criticizing President Barack Obama for the unclear mission and for following other nations rather than leading the intervention sooner when the rebels were surging.
But more important than the message -- which is similar to those of many of his potential rivals -- is the messenger.
Mr. Santorum served on the Armed Forces Committee in the Senate, where he was engaged in debates on how to transform the nation's military after the end of the Cold War. In addition, he was outspoken on toppling the theocratic regime in Iran and sponsored a bill to fund groups that were trying to overthrow the Tehran government. He has also spoken forcefully about confronting radical Islam.
"I can just point to being able to look at a situation from a national security point of view, analyze it dispassionately as to what the threats are and analyze the ideological component of it," he said. "Something I've been out front on is not pussyfooting around the real ideological conflicts that confront this country from jihadism."
Last month, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Mr. Santorum devoted a significant chunk of his speech to national security issues, criticizing Mr. Obama for supporting Egyptian protesters but not backing those in Iran in 2009.
This week, as U.S. planes struck Libya, Mr. Santorum appeared on CNN to talk about the conflict. His media strategist, John Brabender, said 75 percent to 80 percent of Mr. Santorum's media requests have been to talk about foreign affairs.
Mr. Brabender said Mr. Santorum had to decline an invitation Sunday to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" to speak about international turmoil because of a conflict in Pittsburgh, but he's looking to schedule a speech at the National Press Club in the coming weeks that will focus on foreign policy.
Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor, said it's wise for Mr. Santorum, who is near the back of the pack in early polling, to seek as much exposure as possible on these topics.
"Anyone who can say that they've got some experience with foreign policy issues will have an advantage over somebody who wants to be a contender who doesn't have foreign policy experience," Mr. Schmidt said.
"Even if this Libyan thing doesn't have legs, it reminded Americans -- and the tsunami and the whole Japanese crisis reminded Americans -- that it's not all about social conservative issues, and it's not all about budget deficits, and it's not all about domestic policy, which is where the Republican dialogue was headed."
Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, said Mr. Santorum's message becomes even more potent if he links it to domestic issues such as rising gasoline prices.
Mr. Santorum, like most of his potential rivals, has not taken official steps toward a run, but he has spent significant time visiting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- states with an early, critical say in the presidential nomination process. The wide-open field is headed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- both of whom ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 -- as well as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is a more doubtful candidate than the other two but remains the party's biggest star.
Besides Mr. Santorum, presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and departing Obama administration ambassador to China, is the only one with substantial foreign policy experience on his resume.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota hail from the more domestically focused lower chamber. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Monongahela native, draw on their experience running a state.
Some of them have tripped over the complicated and ever-changing Libyan military intervention. Mr. Gingrich on Wednesday struggled to reconcile his early support for a no-fly zone over Libya with his statements, after Mr. Obama launched attacks in the country, saying he wouldn't have intervened.
Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Ms. Palin all have taken overseas trips in recent weeks, but Mr. Santorum has no plans for a similar sojourn.
"I think people got to be careful that they don't just equate travel to other countries as equivalent to having real national security and foreign affairs experience," Mr. Brabender said. "If it was that easy, then everyone who has a good travel agent would be qualified to be president."
Mr. Brabender predicted that foreign affairs will take up an increased proportion of the debates and the issues will not have died down by the time primary and caucus voters head to the polls early next year.
Still, Mr. Schmidt said, in Iowa, where Mr. Santorum must fare well in the first vote of the primary season to have a viable candidacy, voters will remain focused on domestic policy.
Foreign policy "might be a nice sort of add on, a little cream on top, but in Iowa the real energy with the Republican Party is almost purely on domestic issues and especially on socially conservative issues," Mr. Schmidt said. "You've got to be strong on those, then you add on your foreign policy experiences."
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.