How Santorum’s Scolding Is Dooming His Campaign

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters during a campaign rally Feb. 26, 2012 in Traverse City, Michigan.

In the early summer of 2006, then-Senator Rick Santorum was facing a tough reelection challenge, trailing Pennsylvania’s Treasurer Bob Casey by 9 points and struggling to shed his image as a Washington insider. So Santorum launched a statewide, 67-county push, raising twice as much money as Casey, hiring campaign-tested pollsters and ad-makers, and recasting himself an independent-minded fighter.

But when Santorum traveled to the conservative heartland of central Pennsylvania in July to rally supporters, his poll deficit was dropping into the double digits and his larger problem was plain to see: Santorum is a scold. At an Adams County picnic, Santorum delivered the campaign lines crafted to present his independent side, saying he had broken with President Bush on immigration, was critical of Donald Rumsfeld and stood up to the liberal media over welfare and urban policy. But Santorum also spoke to issues he said were a threat to the country: gay rights; embryonic stem cell research; fetal farms. “Scientists,” he said, “Go to people who have fatal diseases and say, ‘Unless you give us this ability to do this research you know all your kids or all your parents are gonna die! And that’s what they tell’m, that’s what these researchers, they lie to’m.’”

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At first Santorum’s moral doom-saying just sounds like a slightly wacky play to the extreme wing of the GOP. “Farms” where human fetuses are raised for their organs? They don’t exist outside the Huxley-esque imaginings of the far right, so maybe the bill he co-sponsored that year to ban them (later signed into law by George W. Bush) amounted to nothing more than a political stunt. But eventually it becomes clear that Santorum believes America’s lax morals are leading to that kind of future. First you teach teenagers about contraception; the next thing you know you are voting in favor of warehouses of fetuses, grown for the benefit of mankind.

In this election cycle, Santorum has tried to shed the image of the former K Street project leader in the Senate who made the move to highly paid consultant after his 18-point loss to Casey in 2006. He’s pitching himself as the principled conservative who can stand up to Barack Obama. But in recent weeks voters have begun to see that he thinks they are part of the moral downfall of the country. And his numbers are starting to turn. It’s one thing to say Obama or the liberal media are helping take the country to Satan and quite another to say anyone who thinks contraception is “OK” or supports civil unions for gays (never mind gay marriage) is complicit in the Satanic embrace.

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For example, 59% of moderate Republicans support gay unions; 63% of independents do. Those voters might be sympathetic to a candidate who opposes civil unions, but they will be strongly against someone who tells them their position on the issue makes them part of the country’s moral collapse. I don’t know exactly what Santorum was referring to when he said it, but I think it’s safe to say there are a substantial number of Republicans who would take offense at his assertion that their use of contraception leads to “things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be”.

On paper, Santorum might be a viable alternative to Romney. In a series of difficult Senate terms, Santorum was more successful than most in reaching across the aisle even as he rose in the GOP hierarchy. But Santorum sees a looming moral apocalypse, abetted by what are now mainstream positions in America. That’s not a message that’s going to win, even in a GOP primary.

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