DES MOINES — In the mad-dash final hours before Iowans caucus to choose who they think should be the Republican nominee for president, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s message has come down to this: Don’t settle for anything less than a pure conservative.
In a field that he sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly suggests is mushy on causes that matter most to right-leaning voters, he presents himself as a “full-spectrum conservative,” insisting that he offers the race’s most consistent voice advancing traditional Republican positions on limited government, robust national defense and social values.
Is is a message that could hold some appeal in a race where the most conservative voters have jumped from candidate to candidate and polls show many have been generally displeased with their options.
“You can do what Iowans tend to do,” he told voters in what amounted to a closing argument at a pizza joint in Altoona on Monday night. “You can ignore the pundit class. You can ignore the moderate Republicans, who say, ‘Oh we need a moderate. We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’ And Iowa will stand up and say: ‘No. We need to be principled to win.’ ”
But if he translates late poll numbers into a strong showing in Iowa, he is likely to face increased attention from opponents who have up until now largely ignored his lagging campaign — they might question whether he is too conservative to take on President Obama in a general election.
After all, though he uses his wins for the U.S. House and the Senate in the key swing state of Pennsylvania to show he can convince diverse electorates to support him, that swing state also drubbed him out of office in 2006 by 18 percentage points.
Santorum has made a particular push to capture voters whose top concerns are social issues, topics that have particularly defined his stump speeches in front of increasingly growing crowds, as he has worked to consolidate the vote of Christian conservatives who are wary of front-runner Mitt Romney in the race’s final days.
Santorum, who is unapologetically opposed to homosexuality and who authored the ban on partial-birth abortion in Congress, promised Monday that his first executive order as president would be to stop federal funding for groups that perform abortions. As a devout Catholic, he is fully comfortable presenting his social positions in religious terms that appeal to the Christian vote.
“There are very few candidates who go around and talk about the things that I talk about. I talk about the foundational rights of our country — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That foundational right is life,” he said at a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Friday.
“If everyone is endowed by God — not any god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that God — with the right to life, then there are certain things that we need to follow through and have in our law,” he continued.
But in an interview last week, Santorum said his appeal goes beyond abortion and gay marriage. He attributed his rise in the polls to waning support for Rep. Ron Paul’s isolationist foreign policy.
Santorum, by contrast, has been one of the race’s more belligerent voices on the need to contain Iran. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, he indicated that he would launch airstrikes against Iran if the country does not cooperate more fully with nuclear inspectors.
“I would be working openly with the state if Israel, and I would be saying to Iran, ‘You need to open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors, or we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes,’ and make it very public that we are doing that,” he said.
He has also been working to separate himself from his Republican rivals on economic policy. Like them, he advocates reducing government’s regulatory burden as a way to spur business growth. But he has rejected calls, in vogue this campaign season, for slashing tax rates to single digits or a flat tax that would apply equally to all income levels.
Instead, he calls for pushing the top marginal tax rate down to Reagan-era levels of 28 percent (“If it was good enough for Reagan, it’s good enough for me,” he said at one recent stop) and eliminating many — but not the most expensive — deductions enjoyed by taxpayers.
He would push corporate rates down to 17.5 percent but would create a new class of corporate income tax payers — manufacturers — pushing their rates all the way down to 0 percent, a position that has drawn some fire for appearing to allow government to use the tax code to pick economic winners and losers.
“Why are we going to treat retailers and Wal-Mart and restaurants and florists different than we treat manufacturers? Because retailers don’t move their operations to China. They don’t move them to Mexico. Because we have to compete for those jobs, and if we don’t effectively compete, we lose those jobs,” he explained at a town hall meeting at a civic center in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Saturday.
Ever conscious of the questions that have plagued his campaign over electability, he generally tells audiences that his position on the manufacturers’ tax could give him an edge over Republican rivals — and Obama — in blue-collar industrial towns and cities hit hard by manufacturing job losses.
“Deliver that message in small-town Iowa and guess what makes up small-town Iowa? Manufacturing,” he said in an interview last week, explaining his own growing appeal. “Guess what makes up Manchester, Nashua, go on down the list? It’s manufacturing.”