Santorum faces scrutiny on social issues

Rick Santorum is edging ahead of Mitt Romney in the GOP race, yet despite chances to pivot to economic issues or define his rivals, the former Pennsylvania senator finds himself unable or unwilling to escape controversies over social issues.

Santorum is riding high, with a spate of new polls showing him as the top choice of Republican voters and as having a promising chance to deliver a substantial blow to Romney by winning the Feb. 28 Michigan primary.

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Yet, Santorum's weekend was consumed by defending comments he made while campaigning in Ohio on Saturday, including an insinuation that the president's agenda was based on a "phony theology … not found in the Bible," that the president's healthcare plan aided the abortion of disabled children, and that all government mandates should be stripped from public education.

Asked about each during an appearance Sunday on CBS, Santorum refused to back down, associating the president with "radical environmentalists," questioning the science behind global warming, and insisting that certain prenatal tests were performed mainly to identify children with a risk for genetic disease — and encourage their abortion.

Host Bob Schieffer was almost apologetic at the end of the interview, saying he hadn't intended for the quarter-hour to be spent entirely on social issues.

"I'd hoped to ask you some questions about the economy, but frankly you made so much news yesterday out there on the campaign trail, I felt compelled to ask you about that," Schieffer said.


But Santorum's response — welcoming the line of questions — reveals a side of the senator's personality that is unwilling to shy away from topics that other national politicians fear would alienate centrist swing voters.

"I'm happy to make news about important issues of the day that obviously don't get talked about a lot," Santorum said.

The GOP hopeful has a long history of doing so, interjecting himself into high-profile social issues like the Terri Schiavo case even when popular opinion seemed to be shying the other way.

There's logic to Santorum's penchant for delving into such controversies. Doing so has established his bona fides with socially conservative voters, signaling that he is willing to stand up for core beliefs and principles even when they're unpopular. Relative to Romney — who has struggled to shed the image of an opportunist willing to shift his positions to suit the popular mood — that sort of conviction has proven attractive to GOP primary voters.

It's also neutralized the thrust of Romney's recent attack ads, which seek to portray Santorum as liberal on issues like earmarks and government spending. By enveloping his campaign in a message of social conservatism, Santorum has largely inoculated himself to a Romney attack from the right.

The senator has also pointed to the fact that Republicans are enthusiastic voting for him, especially relative to Romney. With low conservative enthusiasm in early contests, Santorum's team believes that he can tap into a right-wing base so far discontented with the field.

But the problem for Santorum is that by allowing — or encouraging — his campaign to be engulfed in social controversies, he's forfeiting important time and energy that could be used to define his opponents.

In Michigan, Santorum's attempts to characterize Romney as a self-interested mudslinger were largely overshadowed by the controversy over comments by made by Foster Friess, the wealthy businessman who has donated generously to the super-PAC supporting the former senator's efforts. 

A joke Friess made about contraception riled women's health advocates and drew quick denouncements from Democrats. “Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly," Friess had said. 

Apologizing and explaining those remarks pushed off the front pages coverage of Santorum's pointed ad campaign in which a Romney impersonator attempts to shoot mud at his Republican rivals.

In the days immediately following Santorum's dramatic sweep of Missouri, Montana and Colorado earlier this month, Santorum was unable to effectively forward the case that voters were rejecting Romney, because he instead was explaining comments he had made about women serving on the front lines of the military.

“I think that could be a very compromising situation … where people naturally, you know, may do things that may not be in the interests of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved,” Santorum told CNN.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) — a Romney surrogate — almost immediately denounced Santorum's comments, distracting coverage from the momentum the former senator was gaining in the race.

Even if Santorum is able to edge out Romney — a Gallup poll released Sunday showed him with an eight-percentage-point lead — Republicans fear that Santorum could be similarly distracted in a general-election showdown against President Obama. In a contest where hammering the president on a weakened economy seems the easiest and most effective path to Republican success, a candidate who can be reliably distracted by red-meat social issues has Democrats salivating.

Santorum's staff says that it is aware of the potential explosiveness of some of the former senator's comments, but feel confident that he would reveal himself to be reasonable and considerate over the course of a general election. They point often to the fact that Santorum represented Pennsylvania, a reliably Democratic state, arguing that he knows how to connect and moderate his language for Rust Belt and working-class centrists.

“There will be people — Romney and the Democrats — who will try to distort these things,” John Brabender, Santorum’s political adviser, told The Washington Post. “It’s the responsibility of our campaign to show what the senator’s record really is. We are confident that once that happens, people will understand that the senator is extremely reasonable. … When people listen to the beginning, middle and end of what Rick Santorum says, people will say that’s a very reasonable position.”

Santorum also has a reservoir of good will to work from, with the best favorability ratings of any of the remaining GOP candidates. According to Talking Points Memo's candidate favorability tracker, Santorum's net -3 percent favorability exceeds Ron Paul's -9 percent, Romney's -19 percent and Newt Gingrich's -39 percent.

Michigan's upcoming primary should provide an important litmus test for Santorum's approach. A win in a contest that should favor Romney — especially with talk of social issues dominating recent news — would validate the former senator's contention that he will be able to rally conservatives without alienating centrist voters. A loss could suggest that the very statements that have fueled Santorum's reemergence have ultimately put a ceiling on his chances for success.