Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) speaks during an event on May 31, 2014 in New Orleans, La.
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Rick Santorum’s 2016 message comes into focus

Updated

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina – Rick Santorum says he’s still “several months away” from deciding on a presidential run, but the contours of a 2016 message are emerging – one that puts less stock in bashing gay marriage and more in bashing immigration.

“We see wages depressed, we see median income going down, and I think legal immigration is a part of that puzzle,” Santorum told msnbc in an interview on Monday after addressing the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition.

In his speech, the former Republican Pennsylvania senator warned of a “flood of legal – not illegal – immigrants to our country” and called for more restrictions on family immigration. “We are almost at the same level of non-native born in this country they were at in 1920,” Santorum told the audience. “And in 1920 they realized, wait a minute, it’s affecting our workers.”

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For years, the standard response among Republicans pressed on the issue has been that they favored cracking down on border crossings and undocumented immigrants, but broadly supported legal immigration. With his new approach, Santorum could set a new baseline on the right.  

At the same time, Santorum is softening his tone on one of his signature issues. Asked about the Supreme Court’s upcoming look at whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, Santorum – arguably the most famous gay marriage opponent in the country – sounded uninterested in carrying the argument in 2016.

“Whether the Supreme Court finds it constitutional or not or mandates it, or whatever, the vast, vast majority of marriages in America are still going to be moms and dads having children,” he said.

It’s a far cry from his dire language 10 years ago, when he warned in a Senate hearing of “more sexual activity, certainly among multiple partners,” “breakdown of the family, children being born out of wedlock, and communities and cultures in decay,” if gay marriage became the law of the land.

“My position is that we need to focus on making marriages healthier in America and that’s the most important problem facing children in America today,” he told msnbc. “It’s the most important problem facing moms and dads and society and that’s where my focus is going to be.”

Santorum says marriage is still one of his top issues – he devoted significant time in his speech to decrying out-of-wedlock births – but when asked how to support the institution, the topic turned to eliminating tax and welfare penalties for couples who marry.

His culture war has been decidedly warmer and fuzzier lately as he has spent his time since the 2012 election producing Christian-themed movies. Santorum even had some nice things to say about President Obama’s recent proposal to expand family and child tax credits ahead of his State of the Union, an idea that some Republicans have explored as well.

“You’re seeing a left-right potential opportunity,” Santorum said. “Even the president … is talking about how we need to do things to strengthen the family.”

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One reason Santorum may want to back off more inflammatory language around social issues is that his economic message is actually coming into vogue. He was a leading critic of Mitt Romney’s emphasis on business owners over working class Americans in 2012 and last April published “Blue Collar Conservatives,” a book expanding on his ideas.

“It just sort of fell on deaf ears,” Santorum told msnbc, recalling his 2012 message.

Part of that may be Santorum’s fault, whose habit of getting sucked into culture wars often relegated his economic message to the sidelines.

In his speech on Monday, he reiterated some of his old 2012-era criticisms, recalling how exit polls that showed Romney tanking against Obama on the question of which candidate cared about them. “Do you think wealthy people care whether the president cares about them?” Santorum asked the audience. “No. Who cares? Lower or middle income folks who are struggling.”

Romney reportedly blamed his loss on “gifts” to women, minorities and young people, and a big question for 2016 will be if the GOP can show their compassion without aping Democrats’ social spending. One Santorum admirer, for example, walked up to tell him she was dead set against Obamacare, but feared her 27-year-old child couldn’t afford insurance without it. He replied that years of government spending had artificially driven up the cost of health care.

Romney seems to have gotten the message. On Friday, he delivered a speech vowing to combat the “scourge of poverty,” and Romney’s advisers have signaled the issue would play a major role if he seeks the GOP nomination again next year.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Santorum said.

Santorum is still “several months away” from deciding on a second presidential run, however, and has yet to lay the groundwork for a campaign. “We’re just trying to get a sense of where we are,” he said.

After coming in second to Romney in the 2012 primaries, Santorum would likely face a tougher path to the nomination this time. While Romney, Bush and Chris Christie may battle for the establishment title, Santorum could face heavy competition from candidates like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee for social conservative support. Huckabee, in particular, is popular with evangelicals, a voting bloc that helped power him to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus and Santorum to victory in 2012.

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Santorum had nothing but nice things to say about Huckabee, who he said has a “winning personality.” But he did break from the former Arkansas governor over his recent criticisms of Beyonce and Jay-Z for what he claims are overly lascivious lyrics and dancing.

“That’s why I got in the movie business, I’m tired of blaming the other side,” he said. “It’s not the other side’s fault, it’s our fault by not providing good quality alternatives.”

Santorum’s also not a fan of the conventional wisdom that the 2012 field was less appealing than the emerging 2016 class.

“Everyone looks back and says, ‘Oh it’s a weak field,’” he said. “It’s only a weak field after people are vetted. Then you find out every candidate, including yours truly, has issues. There’s no candidate that doesn’t have issues.”

Immigration Reform, Marriage Equality, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum's 2016 message comes into focus

Updated