TAMPA - Rick Santorum stared at his smartphone, monitoring his wife, Karen, who was 10 yards away at the anchor desk in the CNN Grill, appearing as part of an on-air panel during Tuesday's session of the Republican National Convention.

He was getting ready, as he might say, to take it to 'em.

Two of his daughters and a couple of aides hunched over him at his table, blocking the noise of all the people who wanted to get at him. Afterward, Santorum was mobbed by well-wishers and fans, wanting to know about his coming speech in the convention hall; his disabled daughter, Bella; and his take on the man who Tuesday claimed the prize Santorum had wanted.

The former Pennsylvania senator has come a long way since October 2009, when he crisscrossed Iowa in an SUV, a caravan of one, setting out to run for president. By the time Santorum quit the race four months ago, he was the last obstacle in Mitt Romney's path, the social conservatives' champion who shook the front-runner's machine.

In a prime-time speech to the convention, Santorum evoked the massive, work-weathered hands of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who mined coal in southwest Pennsylvania and made a better life for his family, with only one government benefit - freedom.

Now, Santorum argued Tuesday night, that is threatened by President Obama's expansive view of government. But he said that would not prevail.

"I held its hand. I shook the hand of the American dream," Santorum told the convention. "And it has a strong grip."

He pressed the Republican attack on Obama for gutting the 1990s welfare reforms that required aid recipients to work or train for work, and imposed time limits on benefits. He said Obama "showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare."

Independent fact-checking organizations have found that the charge, repeated in Romney campaign ads, is false. The president has not dropped the work requirement, but granted waivers to states to provide more flexibility in imposing it. Politifact on Tuesday night called Santorum's words "a drastic distortion."

Democrats and some pundits have accused the GOP of using the welfare issue as a way to appeal to racial resentments. Nonsense, Santorum said in an interview before the speech. "When you don't have a good argument, and you can't make the argument as to why you want to lower the work requirement, you take out and you play the race card," he said, noting that the same criticism was leveled when he helped write the welfare law in 1995. "And, of course, what happened? When welfare reform was fully implemented, the level of poverty among black children hit the lowest levels since we started recording it."

The law, he said, is "about creating opportunity for people of all races."

In recent days, top Republicans, including party Chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have dismissed the relevance of the party platform. As approved Tuesday, the document enshrines principles Santorum and other conservatives have pushed for years - for example, it calls for a ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, and opposes same-sex marriage.

Those positions have been spotlighted because of the controversy over Missouri Senate nominee Todd Akin's remarks about "legitimate rape," Democrats' efforts to cast the GOP as intolerant, and polls showing that the party and its standard-bearer are at a disadvantage among women voters.

"Have you ever met anybody who has read the party platform?" Boehner said Monday at a lunch with reporters. "I've not ever met anybody. It ought to be on one sheet of paper. And guess what? I was on this kick about at least eight or 12 years ago that we ought to have a one-page party platform, and that way Americans could actually read it. Might be willing to. Might."

Santorum said he was not surprised some in the party sought to downplay the social issues he is most identified with.

"That's always the case," he said, adding that he knows most Republicans oppose abortion rights.

In his speech, Santorum drew a standing ovation when he spoke of Bella, who was born with the rare genetic disorder Trisomy 18. He said, "I thank God 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."

In the interview, Santorum said it is Democrats who are going "overboard" to highlight abortion. "I mean, having the head of Planned Parenthood speak at your convention - the largest abortion provider in the nation? So when we hear the media and the left talk about, 'Oh, all the Republicans want to talk about is social issues' . . . it's really the other side that is preoccupied with those things. . . . And now the Democratic Party is moving in a different direction. . . . They're the ones who are trying to change and alter the landscape of America, not us."

Santorum said he wrote his own speech - and that it went through about 20 edits. The Romney campaign also combed through it.

"They fact-checked, which was helpful," Santorum said. "They want to make sure no one's going to put a 'Pinocchio' on your speech." At one point, he said, Romney's aides made suggestions "about some hyperbole - because you know how I take it to 'em. They said, 'You might want to dial that back a little bit.' "

Santorum wouldn't say what the suggestion was, but he agreed to the change.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.