Rick Santorum tells voters he prayed to decide whether to run for president.
God, opposition to abortion and the primacy of the traditional family are staples of his campaign stump speech. He’s standing by a comment he once made that Satan was targeting the U.S.
In a Republican presidential race that has been dominated by debate over the economy, Santorum has singlehandedly brought a discussion of faith to the fore, making a play for the party’s religiously motivated voters while risking a backlash from others who see such issues as abortion rights as divisive detours.
For Santorum, who has eclipsed Mitt Romney in national polls, a faith-based pitch could be crucial to winning states like Michigan, which along with Arizona holds its primary Feb. 28, as well as Ohio and Southern states that vote March 6.
That appeal is also bringing added scrutiny to his campaign at a time when Santorum is struggling to present himself as a viable alternative to Romney, a Mormon who rarely speaks of his faith and has styled himself as an economic-turnaround artist.
“This is what I know gets everybody in the secular left just bonkers about my campaign -- they just go crazy, because I say that America is, at its heart, a moral enterprise,” Santorum told voters at a Feb. 22 rally by the Tucson Tea Party. “We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian principles in this country.”
A Changed Man
Such talk is natural for Santorum, 53, a Roman Catholic who during his 16-year congressional career evolved from a U.S. House member known for tackling corruption and pressing for balanced budgets into a senator remembered for injecting the government into a family dispute over whether to remove feeding tubes for Terri Schiavo, a woman living in a vegetative state in a Florida hospital.
“He would tell you that his faith grew, and that his belief in fighting for pro-life causes grew, and that those were backburner issues for him, so he certainly changed as a person,” said John Brabender, an adviser who has worked on Santorum’s campaigns since his initial 1990 run for the House. “He became sort of a warrior on those social conservative issues, and taking on fights that other people didn’t want to.”
The transformation began around the same time as Santorum’s loss of a child, Gabriel Michael, in 1996, Brabender said. Born at 20 weeks gestation, the baby lived only two hours outside the womb, after which Santorum and his wife, Karen, brought him home to cuddle and sing to him with his siblings rather than sending him directly to a funeral home. Santorum kept a framed photograph of Gabriel on the desk in his Senate office. Soon after, he sponsored legislation to ban a late-term abortion procedure known to its opponents as “partial-birth abortion.”
Now, Santorum, who’s usually accompanied on stage by some of his seven home-schooled children, is often asked about his disabled 3-year-old youngest daughter, Bella. She suffers from a chromosomal disorder, and he offers her as the personification of his anti-abortion rights views.
“Ninety percent of these kids or more are aborted, because the medical community thinks that these folks just have lives that aren’t worth living,” he told a questioner in Tucson. “If we are a society that only values life that can do things, then you know what? All of us are in trouble.”
Resonates in Heartlands
His talk of faith “resonates in the heartlands,” Brabender said. “We think that’s a big part of why he’s risen so dramatically in the polls.”
That’s true of Diane Salgado, 46, of Tucson, who donned her Virgin Mary earrings and pendant as well as a crucifix and brought her five home-schooled children, ages 3 through 12, to hear Santorum speak at a rally this week.
“He’s a man of real character who’s really putting his money where his mouth is in terms of his faith,” said Salgado, who plans to vote for Santorum. “Why can’t faith inform our civic discourse? It’s like these are dirty words now.”
Santorum’s approach evokes comparisons with former President George W. Bush, a born-again Christian. He spoke frequently about his faith as a candidate and incorporated it into his policy agenda, by enacting legislation to steer federal money to religious organizations, cutting off funding for groups that performed abortions, and backing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Salgado compared the recent controversy over a 2008 speech Santorum gave at Ave Maria University, in which he said Satan was targeting America, to the ridicule Bush received when he said his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ.
“There’s always that disdain among the elite for someone whose faith really comes out and defines them,” she said.
Santorum’s rhetoric is as much strategic as it is instinctive, said former California Congressman Frank Riggs, a supporter who served with him in the House. Riggs said Santorum is working to strengthen his position with core Republican voters before he can reach out to a broader electorate.
“To win an election requires that you first shore up your base, and then -- and only then -- can you go looking for those crossover voters and the more socially and economically conservative Democrats, the blue-collar Democrats,” Riggs said.
Polls suggest the strategy is working. A Feb. 8-12 survey by the Pew Center for the People & the Press showed a Santorum surge powered by support from white evangelicals and Catholics. He gained 14 points among all Republican voters to put him essentially in a tie with Romney -- 30 percent to the ex- Massachusetts governor’s 28 percent -- and saw even larger improvements among white evangelicals, with whom he has an 18- point edge over Romney, and Catholics, who give him a 10-point advantage.
`Democratic Pipe Dream'
Still, some strategists argue that Santorum’s outspokenness on religion and cultural issues would make it impossible for him to beat President Barack Obama in November, and unlikely he would win the Republican nomination.
“It’s a Democratic pipe dream,” Whit Ayres, a Republican polling expert, said of the prospect that Santorum will be the party’s nominee, because he would be “easier to demonize” than Romney, who Ayres said is the “odds-on favorite” to win the party’s nod. Santorum has “said some nutty things.”
“These issues rise and fall with Rick Santorum,” Ayres said, referring to abortion rights and gay marriage. “If he loses, they will recede.”
Out of Step
Santorum’s views on some social issues, including his opposition to birth control, are out of step with those of many Americans, including some in his own party.
A poll conducted Feb. 14-20 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that 82 percent -- including 77 percent of Republicans -- said it wasn’t wrong to use birth control. While the poll found a more partisan divide on abortion, 55 percent said it should be legal in all or most cases, including 58 percent of Independents. Sixty-one percent of Republicans said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
That’s led to concern that Santorum could have particular trouble appealing to women and suburban swing voters.
He created a stir in his 2005 book “It Takes a Family” when he criticized “radical feminists” who were on a “misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect.”
Critics, including Senator Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat who beat Santorum by 18 points in his 2006 re-election bid, interpreted the assertion as a suggestion that a woman’s place is only in the home.
And Santorum’s advisers worry that public attention to his emphasis on faith may overshadow other themes of his candidacy, such as his plan to promote manufacturing jobs, his record on spending issues and ridding Congress of corruption, and his knowledge of foreign policy.
“It’s incumbent upon us to show all these other areas where he’s had significant accomplishments,” Brabender said.
As open as Santorum has been about religion, his wife is sometimes more outspoken. She told South Carolina voters last month that while the family was reluctant for her husband to start a White House run, it was what God was “calling us to do.”
“We prayed and prayed about this decision,” she said at a barbecue restaurant in Lexington.
Santorum, too, said he had “prayed a lot about this,” before deciding to jump into the race.
Now he offers his willingness to talk about faith as proof that he’s authentic, presenting a contrast with Romney, who he charges is scripted and without true conservative principles.
Critics “may find a thing or two and say, ‘Oh look! He said this, and it might mean this,’” Santorum told about 200 voters in Phoenix on Feb. 21, at the end of a day of media frenzy over his 2008 Satan speech.
“We love you for it!” came a voice from the crowd, interrupting Santorum mid-sentence.
“He loves me for it,” Santorum said with a smile.
--Editors: Mark McQuillan, Jeanne Cummings.
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