GOP hopeful Rick Santorum painted himself Wednesday night as the strong, uncompromising conservative leader who could win the presidency.
Santorum, 53, at times brought an almost evangelical fervor to his criticism of President Barack Obama. His message was at times well received by a crowd of about 100 people at Winthrop University's McBryde Hall.
"This election is an election for the future of the soul of America," he said to applause.
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania was first elected to the U.S. House in 1990 before serving in the Senate from 1995 to 2007. Santorum lost his re-election bid to Democrat Bob Casey in 2006.
Santorum made a name for himself as a freshman congressman who, with six others, criticized scandals involving the House bank and post office in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, Santorum cast Obama as a president who wants to expand government and "condemns success, beating up on millionaires and billionaires" as if they're "evil," he said.
Reducing the size of government and improving the economy by lowering corporate tax rates and encouraging manufacturing growth at home are some of his goals if elected.
But Santorum's "passion" and his "conservative values for America" struck a nerve with many in the crowd, including Grace Hutchinson of Rock Hill, who marks Santorum and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann as her "top two" candidates.
Santorum touted his work on welfare reform and banning "partial-birth" abortions, claiming he convinced staunch opponents of the abortion bill to come to his side.
But he also rejected the notion that a viable candidate must lean center to cull support. A right-leaning candidate can win if he can generate enough energy and motivation, Santorum said.
"We need someone who can remind us of who we are," he said, a nation built on immigrants who fled other countries where the values were passed down from the "sovereign" rulers.
America was founded on God-given rights, he said. But those rights don't make everyone equal. Rights are for "equality of opportunity," not "equality of result," he cautioned. He criticized proponents of gay marriage and other interest groups for demanding equal recognition.
Because our rights are misunderstood, the country is now in "jeopardy," he said.
He blamed the passage of the landmark health care bill and its goal of universal health care for threatening the country's welfare and driving him to run for president.
Guaranteeing everyone the right to health care, "Obamacare," as he calls the law, will make Americans dependent. "You have been addicted with an I.V. attached to you," he said.
Santorum criticized Obama for "his desire to care for everyone," arguing that bigger government would only lead to lost freedoms.
Though Santorum's position on health care received applause from many in the audience, it didn't resonate with Terri Patterson, a Rock Hill resident and small business owner, or her son Jeff Patterson, who recently graduated from Winthrop and has health care under his parents' plan because of the legislation.
"We have people who are sitting in emergency rooms who we're paying for already," she said.
Patterson said she was frustrated with the criticism of the health care legislation and said she disagreed with Santorum's definition of "God-given rights," and called him a "religious zealot."
Patterson said she'd have a "hard time denying someone his health."
The GOP candidates are "all nice people," she said. "But they don't want to give equal rights."
Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop, said Santorum lacked the energy he's going to need to win the party bid.
He still hasn't distinguished himself from other GOP candidates, Huffmon said. "His only hope is to focus on evangelicals" and build a core there.