YAKIMA, Wash. — Potential 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum delivered a pointed and, at times, impassioned speech in opposition to abortion, garnering enthusiastic applause from a Yakima crowd of nearly 600 at a Tuesday evening fundraiser for a local nonprofit.

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A former Republican presidential candidate and U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum said the country’s cultural foundations — such as religious faith, education and traditional family structures — are eroding and the source is legalized abortion.

“It is the root of all the social dysfunction you see in America,” Santorum said.

But Santorum said fiery speeches only goes so far in persuading those who disagree with him. He credited groups such as Life Choices Yakima, the local nonprofit that invited him to speak at their fundraiser, for making headway in the effort by opening clinics that reach out to pregnant women to dissuade them from abortions.

“It has dramatically changed the discussion around the pro-life issue,” Santorum said. “This movement is about unconditional love.”

Santorum, 55, was one of the prime challengers to eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries. Santorum won the first Republican caucus in Iowa that year, and went on to win 10 more states before dropping out after he lost the Wisconsin primary in early April.

Santorum finished a close third behind Ron Paul in the Washington state Republican presidential caucuses in March 2012, which Romney won.

The former candidate has continued to tour the nation since dropping out of the race speaking to conservative groups, such as Life Choices Yakima, and at universities such as Fort Hayes State University in Kansas, where he debated former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on Monday.

Santorum drew applause, laughter and even gasps from Tuesday’ evening’ audience as he riveted them with his account of the debate with Dean. At the heart of his retelling was their fight over whether life begins at conception, which Santorum said isn’t a question of belief, but fact.

“We allow folks to take what is true and put it in the realm of belief or faith,” Santorum said. “We, in this movement, are the party of science. We are the ones that want people to have more information about what is going on.”

Santorum is popular on the right and loathed by liberals for his unabashed social conservatism, including opposition to gay marriage, which Washington voters upheld last year. Santorum had two widely publicized encounters with his detractors in Washington state while on the campaign trail in 2012, including a February rally in Tacoma interrupted by protesters, some of whom were dragged away by police.

But there were no such efforts to undermine Santorum’s message Tuesday as he spoke to 580 people who paid up to $200 each to hear him speak at the Yakima Convention Center.

In an interview about other national issues before the speech, Santorum said he opposes any proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

“I’m not opposed to some solution that creates a plan for people who came here illegally to come for a period of time or potentially longer,” Santorum said.

Asked further what he thinks comprehensive immigration reform should look like, he deferred to the current Congress.

“One of the benefits of not being in the Senate is I don’t have to be bogged down in what an immigration bill looks like,” he said.

In recent weeks, Santorum has been critical of more conservative party leaders following the federal government shutdown, which was the result of a partisan fight to defund the Affordable Care Act. In the interview, Santorum said the party should continue to beat the drum in opposition to the law, but Republicans have to know what strategies work and when to change course.

“I don’t think a government shutdown is necessary to make the point that law needs to be replaced,” Santorum said. “There are lots of us who have had ideas how to replace this and go in the opposite direction of what (President) Obama wants to do. We need to be much more articulate.”

As Santorum continues with speaking engagements and drumming up support for the campaigns of other conservative Republicans across the nation, he’s avoiding the question of his own future political aspirations.

Asked about a potential run Tuesday, Santorum wasn’t budging.

“My canned answer is I’m not running, I’m walking, and that is trying to walk the path I think I’m supposed to walk for my family, my country, for God,” Santorum said.