Say this much for Rick Santorum: As a former senator who’s been hard at work cultivating support in the early primary states, he was able to attract a respectable amount of media attention to his announcement today that he’s joining the 2012 presidential campaign.

The tenor of that coverage, though, may not be quite what he was hoping for. Not even the most unflattering of today’s stories literally comes out and calls Santorum a past-his-prime, unelectable extremist. But it’s clear that much of the press corps—with some justification—views the one-time Pennsylvania senator as a marginal candidate at best.

The New York Times opened its story this morning with the same question George Stephanopoulos put to Santorum on Good Morning America this morning: How can a politician who was trounced by seventeen points in his last election—while running as an incumbent, no less—expect to seriously compete?

Other stories note his lackluster showing so far this primary season. “Santorum, 53, has shown little strength in polls, routinely scoring in the low single digits,” concluded a perfunctory article in the Sacramento Bee.

And while Politico’s story opens with a respectful treatment of the Santorum campaign’s theory of why it can compete—namely, by aping Mike Huckabee’s approach in 2008—near the end comes this biting passage:

“If he wants to occupy a space that Huckabee did, there are other people who can do that better than him,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, who worked for Romney in 2008 but is so far uncommitted. “That’s just not credible. I just don’t think his candidacy’s relevant.”

In the weekend leading up the announcement, Santorum swung by Huckabee’s Fox News show. Though he insists that he’s only after the ultimate prize, friends and allies acknowledge that Huckabee’s the model in this too, as Santorum tries to find a new voice in national politics — and perhaps even a Fox show of his own, with a new, bigger contract to replace the one that was severed as he got serious about his campaign.

“He continues to get his name out there, and that’s always good for someone who likes to talk,” one campaign insider said.

Beyond the generally skeptical tone, there’s another common theme emerging from these stories: Santorum is running on a really, really conservative platform, and one that’s not limited to the anti-abortion, anti-gay issue positions he’s best known for. The Times story, for example, notes that he lectures about the perils of “radical jihadism” and faults President Obama for engaging in insufficient chest-beating about events in the Middle East. And on ABC this morning, Santorum apparently said Paul Ryan’s budget proposal was too timid, because while it slashed the federal government’s long-term commitment to Medicare, it didn’t do the same to Social Security.

These nuggets are interesting because they illustrate just how far right the “conservative” space within the Republican race has moved across a range of issues. During his Senate career, Santorum—never abashed about his conservative outlook—did support President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. But he also, as a good Christian Science Monitor backgrounder notes, voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Indeed, as Doug Mataconis notes at Outside the Beltway, “Santorum’s real roots are as a big government social conservative,” not an economic libertarian. His rush to get to Ryan’s right shows how, with the fiscal debate tilting rightward, many Republicans are now engaged in a game of perpetual one-upsmanship, trying to outdo each other with the authentically “conservative” approach to budget politics. Even if Santorum’s campaign itself doesn’t attract much media attention going forward, that’s a story that should.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.