In the National Spotlight, Santorum Doesn’t Shy Away from Social Issues

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Eric Gay / AP

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at the Ohio Christian Alliance conference Feb. 18, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

Rick Santorum’s victories on Feb. 7 kicked off a month-long trial period, which will be capped by Super Tuesday on March 6, to convince Republican voters that he is not only the best conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, but also a viable general-election candidate. Midway through Santorum’s moment, it’s tough to tell if he’s thriving or blowing it. 

Ignore for a moment the polls, which have been a lagging indicator throughout the volatile nominating fight. To position himself as a credible threat to Barack Obama, Santorum had use the spotlight afforded by his three-state sweep on two weeks ago to demonstrate the breadth of his appeal. “He’s been so visible on social issues that sometimes it overshadows the fiscal conservative record that he has,” Santorum strategist John Brabender told me last week. Santorum likes to describe himself as a “full-spectrum conservative,” and aides suggested now was the time for Santorum to showcase his fluency on issues beyond gay marriage and abortion. He would spend time talking about his plan to spark the Rust Belt’s industrial engines by eliminating taxes on manufacturing; his hawkish foreign policy, an area where Romney has little experience; and the perils of nominating a governor who backed TARP and crafted the antecedent to Obama’s health-care overhaul.

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Most importantly, he would stack his carefully cultivated everyman persona against Romney’s executive mien. “We need someone who understands, who comes from the coal fields, who comes from the steel mills, who understands what average working people in America need to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” Santorum said Monday in eastern Ohio. Never mind that Santorum is a trained lawyer who spent 16 years in Congress before become a high-flying consultant, and has never worked a day in either blue-collar idyll. The truth of the statement was less important than the empathy it was meant to convey.

But instead of selling this story, Santorum has spent several critical days trying to put out fires of his own making. Over the Presidents Day weekend alone, he questioned Obama’s “phony theology,” suggested that standard prenatal testing is a mechanism to “encourage abortions,” and appeared to liken Obama to Hitler by comparing complacency over the President’s agenda to the pre-World War II period when the U.S. dallied during the rise of “this guy over in Europe.”

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Santorum, whose home-schools his children, also referred to public schools–which he blasted in his 2005 book for their “weird socialization” — as “factories.” On Monday, his new campaign spokesman had to apologize after assailing Obama’s “radical Islamic policies.” The Daily Beast used the spate of controversial comments to compile a list of the “Top 10 Outrageous Things Rick Santorum has said,” declaring that “there are politicians who make gaffes, and then there is Rick Santorum.”

Santorum spent plenty of time over the weekend explaining away or defending his remarks. He denied impugning the President’s faith, claiming that he was referring to Obama’s “radical environmentalism” and saying, “I accept the fact that the President is a Christian.” He doubled down on his criticism of prenatal testing. And he soft-pedaled his opposition to the government’s role in public education, casting it as a preference for local control of schools, a position which comports with conservative ideology. Though none of these episodes is likely to inflict immediate damage, they won’t help him dispel the perception that his strict social conservatism makes him a risky general-election candidate. And each second of oxygen they consume is a squandered opportunity to batter Romney or enumerate his own merits.

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But while Democrats will use such comments to buttress the argument that Santorum’s views are extreme, they won’t hurt him in a Republican primary where voters have prized purity and passion over all else. Though he’s made electability central to his message, Romney doesn’t seem inclined to attack Santorum from the center. John Sununu, one of Romney’s top surrogates, even hammered Santorum on Friday for backing “liberal social causes.” So far, Santorum’s surge shows little sign of abating; his crowds have been big and buoyant, and while the contest in Michigan appears to be tightening, polls show Santorum opening leads in Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.

Which raises the possibility that Santorum’s controversial comments weren’t “gaffes” at all. In the eyes of his acolytes, he burnishes his standing every time he soldiers through a game of gotcha journalism with the liberal media. Any aspersions cast on Obama’s religion — entirely coincidental, mind you! — may also serve to remind voters of Romney’s Mormonism.

To be sure, Santorum’s high favorability numbers — 67% of respondents in Michigan say they have a positive view of the former Senator, compared to 23% who don’t — are a function of the fact that he’s taken little sustained fire from opponents so far. But they also reflect the perception that he is a politician who says what he believes. In a turbulent primary season, Republican voters have placed as much importance, if not more, on candidates’ biography and authenticity as on policy. If it stays that way, Santorum’s moment may well extend beyond the next two weeks. But come November, he would face the challenge of swaying voters with a different set of priorities.

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