Former Sen. Rick Santorum (right) was popular with ALEC summit attendees.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum and a San Diego State graduate who launched the Tea Party Patriots want term limits for federal officials, a balanced budget in Washington and other limits placed on federal power.

But forget asking Congress, they said Thursday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt downtown. (And don’t get Donald Trump too involved.)

Instead, they urged conservative state legislators and private-sector allies to support their efforts to convene a 50-state meeting to start the process of amending the U.S. Constitution.

Mark Meckler, a 1980s SDSU English major who went on to found the Convention of States Action, and 2012 presidential contender Santorum spoke to 100 members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

“We need something transformational to happen,” Santorum said. “This is the most important thing you’re going to do as a legislator. … It’s not like things will get better on their own.”

Along with scholar Robert “Rob” Natelson, they sought to bat down arguments against a convention 34 states can trigger under Article V of the Constitution. (Fifteen states have already passed such resolutions.)

They countered critics on the right, notably groups like the Eagle Forum once led by Phyllis Schlafly, who the speakers said borrowed arguments from noted liberal thinkers like Harvard’s Laurence Tribe.

A wild card entered the discussion, however, when someone submitted the question: “Could the active support of the president of the United States help us to get to 34?” 

“I assume you mean the former president,” replied Santorum, eliciting laughter. The former Pennsylvania senator eventually addressed the issue: “Having President Trump on our team helping and focusing on state legislative races…. There’s always a little good and a little bad that comes along with the equation.”

Santorum, whose remarks offending Native Americans led to his exit as a CNN commentator, said the Convention of the States movement was growing “under the radar” — with national media paying no attention.

“I won’t speak for Mark whether [Trump’s] endorsement would be helpful,” he said. “But we’re planning on putting resources, people in place to get us to where the safety’s off and we have a live weapon in our hands.”

After the hourlong workshop, Santorum was asked to expand on his Trump remarks.  

“Honestly, … we want everybody’s support,” he told Times of San Diego. “But my point was Trump is the lightning rod for everybody. Pro and con. And so I think it’s sometimes … best to have the debate about the substance of what you’re doing, which I think is compelling, [rather] than have it be about Donald Trump.”

The “quiet support” of Trump is OK, he said. But Santorum highlighted the approach of Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who kept Trump at arm’s length.

Santorum said the Convention of the States project has nothing to do with the 45th president.

“That was my point,” he said on Day 2 of the three-day meeting of 700 ALEC members. “I don’t want it to rise to the level that this becomes a litmus test for Trump or no Trump.”

The workshop — titled “Leftist Plot or Plan to Save America?” — quickly dispatched the notion of liberals pushing for a convention with each state sending one delegate.

“Some on the right have gone so far as to claim that the … project is actually a leftist plot funded by George Soros,” said moderator Rita Peters, a radio host and attorney.

Natelson, a senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver, said: “Almost all the talking points you hear from people on the left were invented to stop constitutional amendments to balance the budget and overturn Roe vs. Wade.”

Santorum said he stayed neutral on the states convention idea until recently — caught between his late friend Schlafly and radio talker Mark Levin. He conceded he had fallen for bad information.

“We have to take a leap of faith,” he said. “And it’s not that big of a leap of faith. … It’s your moment to do something great for America — not just for your lifetime. For forever.”

It could strike a blow against what Santorum called the Deep State.

“Why not? You could say every GS13 [federal employee] and above can only serve 10 years or five years,” he said in an interview after the workshop, referring to an amendment’s potential wording. “These are the kinds of things that can be debated. It takes 38 states to ratify it. … The idea that crazy things will come out of this convention — no. These are legislators. They know what they’re doing.”

Meckler, who went on from SDSU to earn a law degree and become interim CEO of conservative social media app Parler, called himself an expert at grassroots politics who visited 16 states in the past 90 days.

He said events advocating a Convention of the States are held daily — “picnics, lunches, parades, meetings in the legislature, people going to gun shows. … Washington, D.C., will never reform itself. Not under Donald Trump. Not under Ronald Reagan.”

Said Meckler: “To expect [those in Washington] to fix themselves is a fool’s errand and the American people know this.”

He told the story of a North Carolina block walking captain named Tara, a zealot for his cause who came down with COVID-19. 

“She was worried about her country while she was in the hospital…. She actually made a call from her hospital room to appoint somebody to take over for her before she passed,” Meckler said, prompting groans. “America was founded by people like Tara … regular people who recognize that the principle of liberty is at stake.”

Santorum concluded his pitch to those he thought mattered.

“If every Republican [state legislator] votes for this — and every Republican should — you can make this happen,” he said.