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Right Turn
Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 09/18/2011

Rick Santorum courts social conservatives

Rick Santorum has long been a favorite among Christian conservative voters. He sponsored partial birth abortion legislation and has taken a hard-and-fast stance against gay marriage. His book on the death of his son shortly after birth is the sort of personal experience that resonates with social conservatives. Now he is trying to translate that reservoir of goodwill into support for his presidential candidacy.

On Friday night the former two-term Pennsylvania senator was the keynote speaker at Concerned Women for America’s annual dinner in Washington. The 500,000-member group is making a splash this election cycle, starting with an ad in swing states on the debt ceiling debate.

CWA chief executive Penny Nance told me about Santorum’s appearance: “Rick Santorum did a great job of reminding our member why they loved him as a U.S. senator. He spoke for about 40 minutes without notes giving thoughtful historical and philosophical analysis of the nation’s many challenges. He echoed our belief that this may be the most important election of our lifetimes.” She added, “His record as the champion of the partial birth abortion ban and personal integrity endears him to the hearts of our ladies. He was definitely a hit.”

Others at the dinner were similarly impressed. “Rick Santorum was a breath of fresh air. He was completely candid with us — tackling difficult topics that most candidates will not touch such as entitlements which make people wholly dependent on our government from cradle to grave,” Cheryl Ryan from Kansas e-mailed me. Santorum’s appearance sealed the deal for her: “Before hearing him speak at the CWA leadership conference, he was my most favored candidate. After . . . [I listened] to his remarks last night, he is my candidate.” Sheri Miller from North Carolina was likewise impressed. She told me, “Rick Santorum spoke with integrity stating his position on family values. He spoke with an unwavering, earnest dedication to uphold the Founding Fathers’ original intent as stated in our nation's Constitution.” For social conservatives, a candidate’s sincerity and passion are as critical as his position on the issues. On those counts, Susie Hawk of California remarked: “His past record for the sanctity of life, marriage and family has been unwavering. Rick Santorum's ability to communicate clearly his convictions was persuasive.”

If Santorum gains support in personal appearances, through connections with clergy and in national forums, he’ll get an important boost in Iowa, where Christian conservatives play a strong role in the caucuses. He came in a surprising fourth in the Ames straw poll and has turned in solid debate performances.

This is quite reminiscent of Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008. Huckabee came in second in 2007, built support through high-octane debate performances and went on to win the Iowa caucuses. Could Santorum do the same?

His challenge is greater than Huckabee’s was in 2008, when Huckabee went up against Mitt Romney, who didn’t have deep roots among values voters. This time Santorum has Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in his way, as well as Romney. To climb past the two strong social conservative competitors, he’ll need to be aggressive in debates and begin to challenge his opponents’ social conservative credentials. We already saw that in the last debate when he challenged Perry on mandatory human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations. Almost certainly Santorum will challenge Perry on some items in his book “Fed Up!” While Romney is going after Perry on Social Security, Santorum is positioned to question Perry’s comments advocating states’ right to legalize marijuana and allow gay marriage (a position he seems to have abandoned.) As for Bachmann, her remarks on HPV testing causing mental retardation have been roundly criticized in conservative media; Santorum could benefit if her self-inflicted wounds continue.

Santorum is exceptionally low on funding, but in Iowa he has some low- or no-cost help. First, Santorum has close connections to the home-schooling community, which can provide a grass-roots network of caucus attendees. Second, some of the attacks on Perry are beginning to take hold, as the Associated Press reports on his campaigning in Iowa, where local residents are intending to “ask him tough questions”:

[Former] Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken Perry to task for pushing for major changes to Social Security, a program Perry has called a Ponzi scheme and that millions of seniors live on.
Bill Ward, a Republican activist in a central Iowa county struggling with the weak economy, was among more than 100 people who crammed into a coffee shop sitting on Newton’s town square. Perry’s comment that Social Security could be handled by individual states troubled him, he said.
“I don’t know what to make of it yet. But I was up early this morning thinking about it,” said Ward, a retiree open to backing Romney or Perry in the caucuses. “Time will tell.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann went after Perry in Monday night’s debate for issuing an executive order requiring vaccinations against the human papillomavirus for young girls. . . .For Jim Carley, a Tea Party activist in suburban Des Moines, government mandating anything just doesn’t sit well.
“The more I know more about him, the more I learn he says a lot of things I don’t like,” Carley said.
But for Bruce Keeney, who heard Perry speak Thursday in Jefferson, Iowa, the explanation on the HPV issue was sufficient. He’s leaning toward supporting Perry, although the governor’s support for education benefits for the children of illegal immigrants troubles him.

So long as the media and voters continue to press Perry on issues critical to Iowa’s Christian conservatives, Santorum has chance to come from behind. He’s got a long way to go, but he certainly did himself some good at the CWA confab.

By  |  09:00 AM ET, 09/18/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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