‘The one who can beat Obama: Rick Santorum," the television commercial proclaims. That boast brings cheers from two quarters: the faithful followers of the conservative Republican presidential candidate, and the Democratic president's political strategists.
The former Pennsylvania senator is on fire in the Republican contest, threatening the front-runner, Mitt Romney, in the critical Michigan primary next week and nationally.
Still, President Barack Obama's campaign, the super PACs supporting it and the Democratic National Committee are targeting Romney. They still believe the former Massachusetts governor is the likely nominee, though they are less certain than they were a few weeks ago. And they calculate, despite the shortcomings Romney displays as a candidate, that he would be more competitive than Santorum in the general election.
Santorum, on the other hand, is a more natural Republican primary candidate, singing the same conservative economic song as the party's other aspirants, and layering it with hard-core social and cultural views, such as hostility to gay rights, contraception and feminism.
He's a more problematic adversary for Romney than is Newt Gingrich, who has been savaged for his lucrative links to the federally backed home mortgage company Freddie Mac and his checkered career as House speaker.
The Romney campaign, which, along with its super PAC, will spend millions assaulting the new main challenger over the next several weeks, is torn as to what strategy is effective. Santorum's career as a Washington insider who supported earmarks while in the Senate doesn't have the same resonance as Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac. In a Republican primary contest, it's not productive to attack cultural conservatism.
Those issues, touchy in the party fight, are likely to be lethal in a general election.
An example: So far the Romney attack dogs haven't touched the controversy that emerged during Santorum's 2006 re-election bid, when it was revealed that Pennsylvania taxpayers picked up a $55,000 tab for home-schooling his kids. State law permitted reimbursement for cyber-education; the problem was that the Santorum family lived in Washington's Virginia suburbs.
That was one of the issues that year that caused Santorum to suffer the worst electoral defeat of any Republican senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania's modern history. It was a bad year for Republicans anyway, but no incumbent senator lost by anywhere near as much. This also reflected a changing Santorum who moved to the hard right on social and cultural issues. It's clear that he did so out of conviction, not expediency; the bad news for his candidacy is that he now embraces sentiments that smack of intolerance to many Americans.
Santorum opposes gay marriage; so do many other Republicans, as well as about half of the public, though that number is dwindling. While discoursing on the subject in 2003, Santorum stunned a reporter when he appeared to liken homosexuality to "man on child, man on dog." He also once seemed to suggest that gay men should remain celibate.
He is irresistibly drawn to this topic. After scoring impressively in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses this year, he came to New Hampshire with a political head of steam, determined to focus on the top economic issues. Within several days, when asked about same-sex marriage, he replied, "What about three men?" adding, "Any two people, or any three, or four."
On contraception, his opposition isn't limited to the current controversy over whether religious institutions should have to cover employees for such benefits. Although he says that as president he wouldn't impose his view that birth control is wrong, in a 2010 interview he said he would warn the country about "the dangers of contraception."
In 2005, during his last term in the Senate, Santorum was the driving force in the controversy involving Terri Schiavo, who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years and whose husband wanted to remove her from life support. Senate Republicans, led by Santorum, sought to pass a federal law overturning state jurisdiction in the matter and that would require Schiavo to remain on artificial life support, as her parents desired. He even raised the possibility of congressional action against the Florida county circuit judge who ruled that Schiavo's feeding tube could be removed.
The public was repulsed by this political meddling, and when Schiavo died soon after, the autopsy revealed she had been in a persistent vegetative state with "irreversible brain damage."
A look at Santorum's record in his home state is a good indicator of the problems he might encounter as the nominee.
There are four, vote-rich Philadelphia suburban counties that used to be overwhelmingly Republican and now are more centrist and critical to a candidate's success. The most conservative and exurban of these is Chester County, which starts about 20 miles west of Philadelphia and stretches down to the outskirts of Wilmington, Del. It's still more Republican and upper income, though socially moderate. Good Republican candidates carry Chester County. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, running against a Democrat who represented the adjoining district, won there by 12,000 votes in 2010.
In 2006, Santorum was clobbered in the county, losing 55 percent to 45 percent. In a bad year, he might have won or lost narrowly; this was a personal rejection. There are more than a few, if less affluent, Chester Counties around America. If the recent economic improvement stalls, Romney would have a better than even shot in such areas. Santorum probably wouldn't.
Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.
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