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Santorum attacks not Catholic

Because of three successive events last Saturday, Rick Santorum is dead to me now. In a matter of hours he went from pious papist to a last-rites loser in my book. As a Catholic who can’t consistently attract Catholic votes, Santorum should be doomed to spend the remainder of the campaign in political purgatory, going through the purification he’ll need to be fit to speak at the August convention in Tampa that nominates Mitt Romney. 

My Saturday commenced, as always, by reading the morning newspapers, including The New York Times. There on the front page of the Times was an interesting recounting of Santorum’s transformation from nominal Catholic to paragon of the faith. So far, so good.

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Shortly thereafter, while driving to run an errand, I heard a radio ad that featured one of those quintessentially cranky old geezer voice talents prattling on about there being no difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on issues that matter to people like “us.” It was such an overweight delivery of such a ridiculous distortion that I was certain it was one of those off-the-reservation independent-expenditure hatchet jobs, but it wasn’t. Suddenly I was hearing Rick Santorum’s choirboy disclosure voice saying that he had approved of the message.

It was one of the first times in my life that I felt a little sick after the disclaimer. How could Santorum put his credibility on the line for such a blatant misrepresentation of a fellow Republican? Sure, he can criticize Romney for RomneyCare or some flip-flops, but to issue a blanket statement that Romney is just like Obama on issues that matter is just a lie that goes too far beyond the pale of Reagan’s 11th Commandment. Back at home, I tried to find the ad online and failed, but it appears to be a rehashed version of an ad Santorum ran earlier this year, in South Carolina. So Santorum has enough history with this line of argument that he must believe it.

Saturday’s conclusion was spent watching the candidate forum that aired on Fox News, hosted by Mike Huckabee. Parenthetically, this was the best of the forums so far, with more interesting questioners asking different questions and a format that eliminated sniping the competition. Anyway, the program concluded with each of the three candidates (Ron Paul declined to participate) making closing statements. Romney was first to speak, clearly standing on the X-spot that had been designated for this final remark. Then it was Santorum’s turn to get to the same spot on the set. This change of places was evidently awkwardly choreographed, and the camera caught a momentary collision between Romney and Santorum as the Pennsylvanian bull-rushed Romney to get his toe on the mark. The camera covertly caught Romney graciously patting Santorum on the back, looking like a gentleman apologizing for an awkward moment. All I could think of was, “I’ll bet Romney wouldn’t be so nice if he knew Santorum was telling such a big lie about him.”

The exit polls in Santorum’s 2006 loss of his Pennsylvania Senate seat, as well as exit polls conducted in Michigan and other states this cycle, demonstrate that Santorum has a Catholic problem. It might be a negative ad problem more than an explicitly Catholic one. My own research has consistently demonstrated that Catholics are more resistant to aggressively negative ads, and more offended by them, than either Protestants or seculars. Any Catholic, no matter how unsophisticated politically, understands that Mitt Romney bears little resemblance politically to Barack Obama. Hearing Santorum say otherwise in his own voice brands him just another lying politician who will do and say anything to get elected. There’s nothing Catholic about that.

— David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.