In the past four days, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has accused President Obama of believing in “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” He seemed to draw a comparison between Obama and Adolf Hitler. And one of his top aides on Monday uttered the phrase “radical Islamic policies” in describing Obama’s views, then quickly backtracked.
So, seems like Santorum has stepped in it just as his campaign is gaining momentum, right?
Here are five reasons why Santorum’s White House bid may end up being helped, not hurt, by the firestorm over his recent remarks. Whether the Santorum camp’s series of “misstatements” is strategic or accidental is anyone’s guess, but there’s a good argument to be made that the imbroglio could be a net win for Santorum and his White House ambitions.
1. Reporters aren’t voters.
When it comes to Santorum’s recent controversial remarks, Republican primary voters – at least, those showing up to the candidate’s recent events – seem to have had a completely different reaction than the news media has.
Santorum’s spokesman, Hogan Gidley, suggested as much in an interview Monday with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien.
“You saw in the crowd, the people in the crowd got it,” Gidley said when asked about Santorum’s remarks on Obama’s “theology” to a tea-party crowd in Columbus, Ohio. “The journalists were the ones that were confused. The crowd got it. They applauded.”
Applaud they did. And while members of the press may still be scratching their heads over the remarks, what matters more than that is the opinion of those who actually cast ballots on Election Day. If those that have come out to see Santorum in the past few days have reacted to the controversy at all in interviews, it’s been a mostly positive reaction.
That’s not to say that a candidate can say just about anything eyebrow-raising and get away with it. (Rick Perry’s “oops” moment and Newt Gingrich’s moon colony comments are two that come to mind.) Still, the recent remarks from the Santorum camp regarding Obama haven’t appeared to receive the same kind of scrutiny from likely primary voters as they have from the press – and overall, that’s a good thing for Santorum.
2. Santorum is drawing larger and larger crowds.
Are some in the GOP primary electorate having second thoughts about Santorum’s candidacy after the remarks?
Oddly, it seems like the opposite may be happening.
Santorum drew several hundred people to a campaign event in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio, on Monday. He spoke to 350 wildly enthusiastic tea party supporters Saturday, and another equally enthusiastic crowd of Christian conservatives in Ohio later in the day. His Georgia megachurch crowd Sunday night numbered more than 3,000.
Many of those voters are former Gingrich supporters who have been flocking to Santorum as the former speaker’s campaign has foundered. To say that Santorum’s remarks have brought about a backlash doesn’t reflect the groundswell of support that seems to be taking place among GOP base voters – those most likely to turn out in the upcoming primaries.
3. Coverage of the remarks helps Santorum raise his profile and name ID ahead of a series of key primaries.
If voters didn’t know Santorum before, they know him now.
His remarks on Obama’s faith are something like Rick Perry’s statement shortly after jumping into the race that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was guilty of treason – the statement caused a stir, to be sure, but that soon made Perry a household name.
As the race appears to be on its way to becoming a two-man contest between Romney and Santorum, now would seem to be as good a time as any for the former senator to boost his name recognition.
4. The firestorm also helps him draw a contrast with Obama.
Romney has been training his fire on Santorum in recent days, but Santorum curiously has taken a different approach – he’s focused most of his campaign rhetoric on criticizing Obama. The recent remarks fall in line with that approach and allow Santorum to make the case (as he’s done in recent days, including Monday night in Grand Rapids) that he’s more interested in taking on the president than in engaging in mudslinging with his primary rivals.
That’s also a point that Gidley made Monday in his interview with O’Brien. He contended that Santorum is “willing to take on the president one-on-one and he’s not going to shy away from that battle.”
What better way to make that case than to make some comments that draw headlines for days in the press?
5. The general election is a long way off.
Could his remarks cause him trouble in the general election? Of course.
But that contest is a ways away. And Santorum supporters in the primary now – while concerned about their candidate’s chances in the fall – also make the point that choosing a nominee who fails to arouse conservative support could be the more dangerous alternative.
”I think he’s a very strong conservative, and I’m a very strong conservative,” Kevin Nelles, a 24-year-old sales and marketing manager from Weirton, W.Va., said of Santorum after the candidate’s Monday event in Steubenville.
“I worry about his ability to win over the moderate- to left-wing people,” Nelles said. “But in some cases, I think to myself, ‘Well, if all the real strong conservatives actually came out and voted, I don’t think he would necessarily need those people.’ My bigger worry is that no one does energize the strong conservatives and then they stay home, and then we lose the election. That’s kind of how I feel about Romney.”