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Rick Santorum returns with fiscal focus

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum won the Volunteer State in 2012, and he hopes to do so again.

But in an interview Wednesday, the former Pennsylvania senator and social conservative showed a more fiscally focused face.

During an interview on WGOW's "Brian Joyce Show," and in a news conference afterward, Santorum aimed at reforming the tax code with a flat tax, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with state-run programs, tightening immigration laws, building the economy and strengthening America's position abroad by defeating what he called "radical Islam."

He made no mention of abortion, which earned him attention in 2012 when he tweeted that pregnant victims of rape should "make the best out of a bad situation."

And he only mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on same-sex marriage when asked, saying court affirmation of gay marriage would create "a firestorm" and potentially could hurt religious freedom if churches were forced to perform such marriages.

Some of his message wasn't exactly mainstream GOP. Santorum said the U.S. should increase the minimum wage by $1.50 over a three-year period.

"That would keep the minimum wage at about 5 percent of the work force. That has historically shown not to be inflationary," he said.

But he added that has to come with an omnibus tax plan that would reduce corporate taxes, help businesses repatriate foreign funds and create a flat income tax.

Santorum was in town for the Hamilton County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner at the Chattanoogan hotel.

Local GOP Chairman Tony Sanders said the dinner is something the party does every year. It was a private event.

Santorum's also in town to start raising money.

Federal Election Commission filings show Santorum started 2015 with $19,180. By the end of March, he had raised $37,550 and spent $51,027, leaving the candidate with $5,703 on hand at the start of April. However, Santorum didn't announce his 2016 bid until late May.

Like many other Republicans, Santorum was upbeat about the large Republican primary roster. He said competition is a good thing, although he acknowledged it makes money tight.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have taken the same view.

"Fundraising is always hard, but when you have 16 options it makes it even more difficult," he said.

In 2012, he won 11 states on a largely grassroots effort. This year, he's organized and says he won't have to fight the battles of the past.

"People know my positions on all the issues. They don't know the positions of all the others," he said.

Ultimately, he doesn't think the big GOP primary will hurt Republicans or help Democrats.

"It's a little crowded, and it's going to be hard to break through, but that's what campaigns are about," Santorum said.

And it's a little crowded in the Volunteer State over the last few weeks.

Potential candidate Jeb Bush visited Nashville at the end of May for the Republicans' annual fundraiser.

Also seeking the GOP primary nod are former candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and others.

The Democrats have a much smaller ticket so far.

Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and others are seeking the Democratic nod.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or 423-757-6481.

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