TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't on the night he would have wanted, but Rick Santorum's improbable presidential campaign brought him, finally, to the podium of the Republican National Convention.
Months after folding his presidential campaign after an often bitter struggle against Mitt Romney, he urged voters Tuesday night to support his former opponent while sounding the conservative themes that had allowed him to emerge as the last threat to the man who had been nominated hours earlier.
Mr. Santorum started his campaign last June with an opening announcement in Somerset County in which he invoked his immigrant grandparents and described the strong hands of a grandfather who had mined coal until he was 72.
Tuesday night, the former Pennsylvania senator threaded the image of hands throughout his 15-minute speech.
"I grasped dirty hands with scars that come from years of labor in the oil and gas fields, mines and mills -- hands that power and build America and are stewards of the abundant resources that God has given us," he said, looking back to the campaign trail.
"I held hands that are in want. Hands looking for the dignity of a good job, hands growing weary of not finding one but refusing to give up hope. And finally, I cradled the little, broken hands of the disabled. Hands that struggle and bring pain, hands that ennoble us and bring great joy. They came to see us -- oh did they come -- when they found out Karen and I are blessed with caring for someone very special too, our Bella."
He referred to his disabled daughter, born with the rare genetic disorder trisomy 18, whose story inspired parents of special needs children to turn out at his rallies in state after state. Those meetings came during a bid that at first, seemed quixotic, as he embarked with little money and the cloud of a landslide loss of his Senate seat in the 2006 election.
Tuesday night, he again emphasized the social issues that sustained that campaign and eventually turned it into a credible if distant challenge to Mr. Romney.
"I thank God that America still has one party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God's children -- born and unborn -- and says that each of us has dignity and all of us have the right to live the American dream," he said.
Mr. Santorum also offered repeated sharp criticisms of President Barack Obama.
"Under President Obama, the dream of freedom and opportunity has become a nightmare of dependency with almost half of America receiving some government benefit," he said.
"President Obama spent four years and borrowed five trillion dollars, trying to convince you that he could make things better for you -- to put your trust in him and the government to take care of every problem," he said. "The result: massive debt, anemic growth and millions more unemployed."
Mr. Santorum's remarks at the Tampa Bay Times Forum echoed the message he had delivered, usually to much smaller audiences, through the summer and fall of 2011, yet gained little notice or traction in the polls.
As late as early December, less than a month before the caucuses, he was still well back in the polls. But his undaunted campaigning, the slow fade of the Newt Gingrich campaign under a relentless assault from Mr. Romney, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and an 11th-hour endorsement from Iowa evangelical leaders vaulted him to first place on caucus nights. It would take weeks, however, before his victory was officially recognized as confusion in the Iowa GOP's tabulation initially gave the victory to Mr. Romney. It was only later, on the eve of the South Carolina primary, that the mistake was corrected.
Mr. Santorum faded back to the field through the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida contests, but early February victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado propelled him back to the role of chief challenger to Mr. Romney. Their battle reached its high point in close contests in Michigan and Ohio. While both were close, Mr. Romney prevailed narrowly in each. Eventually, the underfunded Mr. Santorum was forced to withdraw just before the primary in the state he had represented in the House and Senate.
Through those weeks of contention, Mr. Santorum was an aggressive critic of the front-runner, assailing him for his role in enacting the Massachusetts health care law that was seen as the template for the federal legislation, "Obamacare," that was so deeply unpopular among Republicans. He insisted the nomination of Mr. Romney would profoundly weaken the GOP's ability to hit the president on the health care law.
In the wake of the financial crisis and years of high unemployment, Mr. Romney's candidacy was always focused on the economy. Mr. Santorum's bid, by contrast, was always a reminder of the social issues that had become fundamental to the party's base in recent decades. In pushing those themes, a figure who had once been an asterisk in Republican polls solidified his stance as a hero to social conservatives. The devout Roman Catholic's strongest showings came in states with relatively high proportions of evangelical Christians, a constituency that sometimes viewed Mr. Romney warily because of his Mormon faith.
Still Mr. Santorum finally endorsed the man who was officially nominated hours before he spoke in a late night email to his supporters. The low key manner of that announcement stirred speculation about the depth of his support. But since, then, Mr. Santorum has become a reliable campaigner for the new GOP standard bearer.
His speaking spot last night was just outside the prime time 10-11 p.m. broadcast news coverage, but he still had the most prominent convention role of any of the candidates that trailed Mr. Romney through the past year on the nomination trail.
He was the only former hopeful awarded one of the coveted evening speaking slots. The South Carolina winner, Mr. Gingrich, who once confidently assured reporters that he would be the nominee, was reduced to presiding over "Newt University," a series of lectures for GOP partisans away from the convention hall, while a parade of other once-upon-a-time front-runners -- Mr. Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and businessman Herman Cain -- were still farther from the convention limelight.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published August 29, 2012 4:00 AM