Posted at 12:42 PM ET, 01/14/2012

Warmer times for Santorum in S. Carolina

HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Things could not be more different for Rick Santorum here compared with New Hampshire, where the former Pennsylvania senator came in fourth in Tuesday's primary.

For one thing, he received a major boost Saturday, when a previously splintered ad hoc group of influential social conservative leaders announced after a meeting in Texas that they had voted to rally behind his candidacy in what is possibly their last hope of stopping former Massachusetts governor Romney from winning the GOP presidential nomination.

For another, there’s the 70-degree weather that greeted Santorum on a recent afternoon here, prompting jokes about the sweater vests he famously favors. At one event, he told crowd that the campaign was having orange ones printed up for hunters that extol “the right to bare arms.”


Former senator Rick Santorum speaks at a campaign rally in Rock Hill, S.C., on Friday. (Mark Wilson - GETTY IMAGES)
In addition, the young people who filled the seats at his events this past week were not pro-gay marriage protesters. Rather, many were home-schooled children, like the precocious preteen who asked the presidential hopeful at a town hall meeting here Thursday how he would support Israel should he make it to the White House.

Or the kid’s twin brother, who immediately followed up with a question about how Santorum thinks he can fix all the damage done to future generations by President Obama.


“The economic problems are tough to overcome because he’s done such great damage, particularly on the regulatory side,” Santorum responded. “But there are a lot of problems that are more intractable problems that we’ve got to deal with. . . . We’ve got to have an idea and a plan to restore, for example, the family.”

The enthusiastic applause he received was indicative of South Carolina’s warmer reception to Santorum’s socially conservative brand of politics. Four years ago, about 60 percent of Republican primary-goers here identified themselves as born-again Christians, and although Santorum is Catholic, he has deep support within the evangelical community.

Still, Santorum is languishing in the polls here. He must push back against the Romney juggernaut, as the former governor tries to cement the air of inevitability around his campaign. And he has to make up for all the time he spent in Iowa while rivals such as Newt Gingrich sowed early support here.

Despite Romney’s lead, Santorum this week has largely avoided the subject of Romney’s stint at the helm of Bain Capital, a private equity firm whose handling of troubled companies has become fodder for some of his opponents. Asked about the issue, he responded only that he is a capitalist and that there were more appropriate criticisms of Romney than his work in the private sector.

Instead, he has stuck to the tea party-tinged, faith-based pitch that led him to a last-minute surge in the Iowa caucuses two weeks ago, where he came in a close second.

In his stump speeches this week, he has spent much of his time lamenting the decline of the traditional nuclear family and the country’s declining birth rate, developments he says are at the root of many of the country’s social ills. He referred often to what he describes as the vision of the Founding Fathers, which he says is rooted in their belief in God-given freedoms. He warned about the threat of sharia law to U.S. courts.

And while he took some shots at his GOP opponents, he reserved his most ferocious criticism for Obama, whom he likened to a power-hungry despot who used last year’s debt-ceiling fight and the health-care overhaul in 2010 to control the American people.

“He used fear for everybody in America who is dependent on the federal government,” he told a crowd of a few hundred outside Charleston. “He pulled the hook and said, ‘You either do what I say or else.’ That’s why Obamacare is so scary. Because now everybody will have that hook.”

Santorum’s overt religious pitch could also win him the support of voters who view Romney’s religion, Mormonism, with a certain discomfort.

“I’m Catholic, you’re Catholic,” one voter told Santorum at a campaign event outside Charleston. “I’m pro-life, you’re pro-life. Romney vacillated at one time. Even being a Mormon and believing in Jesus Christ, myself being a Catholic, I don’t see how you can switch.”

Santorum himself has not taken up the issue of Romney’s religion. But he has criticized Romney’s shifting positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion and argued against the prevailing sense that Romney is the most electable candidate in the GOP field.

“Ultimately, aren’t you looking for a president you can trust?” he asked the crowd here, with many murmuring “yes” in response. “What would give you the impression that someone who would change their position on almost every single issue is a person you can trust? When they get into the tempest of Washington, D.C., that they’re going to stand by the principles they’ve never stood by? Don’t pay attention to the experts. Don’t pay attention to the pundits.”

By  |  12:42 PM ET, 01/14/2012

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company