Is Rick Santorum too conservative to win in November?

February 18, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has won four states and risen suddenly to challenge Mitt Romney as the leader in the national polls. Now he faces a new hurdle: defining himself positively before others rush to disqualify him.

Santorum presents himself as a committed and consistent conservative with blue-collar roots — just the kind of candidate Republicans need to energize the party’s base and reach out to Reagan Democrats in a campaign against President Obama that could be decided in the nation’s industrial heartland.

Obama advisers and other Democrats see a Santorum whose record, writings and statements, particularly on social issues, will be used to portray him as far too conservative for many voters. His record, they say, could make Santorum anathema to suburban swing voters, especially women. That view is shared by some Republicans and independent analysts.

“They [Democrats] would brutalize him on social and cultural issues and present him as so far out of the mainstream as to be radical,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College and a leading pollster in Pennsylvania. “The analogy would be Barry Goldwater” — the 1964 GOP nominee who suffered a landslide defeat.

Santorum’s advisers recognize that he has entered a new phase in his campaign, and they see the obstacles ahead. They argue that a full and fair reading of his record reveals a more attractive profile of the former senator. But they acknowledge it is up to Santorum and his campaign to explain that record and allay concerns about his ability to run competitively in November.

“There will be people — Romney and the Democrats — who will try to distort these things,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s longtime political adviser. “It’s the responsibility of our campaign to show what the senator’s record really is. We are confident that once that happens, people will understand that the senator is extremely reasonable.”

The first tests will come over the next 10 days, as Santorum attempts to leverage his new prominence against Romney in primaries in Arizona and especially Michigan, and then on Super Tuesday, March 6.

Romney and the super PAC backing his campaign have begun to attack Santorum — though not for being too conservative. That may be too risky for a candidate whose conservative credentials are already considered suspect by many on the right.

Instead, they say Santorum strayed from his conservative moorings whenever it was politically convenient to do so. He backed earmarks for projects in his state and district. He voted, as did many in his party, to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly. He backed higher spending to pay for prescription drug benefits under Medicare. He was cozy with labor unions, an important constituency in Pennsylvania.

Those issues likely will be prime topics at Wednesday’s GOP debate in Arizona, and Santorum advisers say they are eager to take on Romney and his attacks in that forum. Romney, they say, is the GOP candidate with questionable conservative credentials, and they are determined to win that definitional battle.

Santorum’s stances

More problematic are the issues that could hurt Santorum in a general election. Like most Republicans, he opposes abortion, but his stance is more restrictive than many. He opposes abortions in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger. He would not make exceptions for rape and incest. Santorum also said he would favor legislation that would allow prosecution of doctors who perform abortions, a position he reaffirmed Saturday in Ohio.

The recent White House missteps on contraception gave Santorum, a devout Roman Catholic, an opportunity to attack the administration on grounds of religious freedom. But broader issues of women’s rights present potential problems for his candidacy.

Though he has voted in favor of contraception, he has said of birth control, “I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our country.” He said he thought it was “harmful to women . . . harmful to society.” He has said states have the right to ban contraception, though he would not vote for such a law.

On the role of women, he wrote in his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” “Radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness. As for children? Well, to paraphrase ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ pay no attention to those kids behind the curtain.”

He opposes same-sex marriage, as do politicians in both parties, including the president. But some years ago, he accused leaders in the gay community of leading a “jihad” against him over comments he had made in which he appeared to equate gay sex with bigamy and polygamy and more.

Those comments came during an interview with the Associated Press in 2003, after a Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-sodomy laws. “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery,” he said. “You have the right to anything.”

In 2005, he intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been in a vegetative state for years. He and other Washington politicians urged that a federal judicial panel review a state court decision authorizing the removal of her feeding tube. He also met in Florida with her parents, who opposed the removal, to pray with them.

On environmental issues, he not only has opposed cap-and-trade legislation to deal with global climate change but also has dismissed the issue as “the global warming hoax.”

Explaining his remarks

Santorum has gone to some lengths to try to explain some of these comments. In some cases, the full context softens the impact of the most inflammatory words and phrases. But the trail he has left behind provides ample fodder for his critics and opponents.

Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative and a Santorum supporter, said that if handled well, the candidate’s views on social issues, particularly with regard to the family, can attract votes from many working-class Americans. They are winners, he believes.

“Everything on the agenda of a conservative Republican Party requires the willingness and commitment to speak in more than 30-second sound bites,” he said.

He added: “You have to choose your words carefully, but I disagree seriously, as you well know, with elites, including Republican elites. I’m not suggesting building a whole campaign on this. . . . But you can’t run from this stuff.”

Santorum advisers say that for every seemingly questionable statement, there is an explanation. His position on same-sex marriage is not different than Romney’s or Obama’s, they say. His views on women and the workplace have been totally misinterpreted. What he means is that women who choose to stay at home and raise their children should be prized by society as much as those who work outside the home.

In case that hasn’t gotten through, advisers say Santorum’s wife, Karen, will become a more visible presence on the campaign trail, and the campaign intends to have women who have worked for him out as surrogates.

On the Schiavo case, Santorum said in a debate in Florida last month that he happened to be in Florida at the time and went to Tampa to be with her parents, at their request. They were, he said, constituents who had asked for his assistance.

“I will agree that everything Rick Santorum says is not poll tested,” Brabender said. But he said he is confident that, given a chance, Santorum can make his case to voters willing to give him a fair shot. On birth control and women’s rights, for example, he said, “When people listen to the beginning, middle and end of what Rick Santorum says, people will say that’s a very reasonable position.”

But in the rough-and-tumble fight of a presidential campaign, Santorum could end up being buried in 30-second ads, whether from Romney and his PAC or in a general election, if he gets that far. A penchant for provocative language and aggressiveness has marked his career from the start.

He ‘outworked everybody’

Santorum has always been a politician in a hurry. He won election to the House in 1990 despite being an underdog against a Democratic incumbent. Most officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee dismissed his chances and declined to give him the help he wanted. He won anyway.

“He just outworked everybody,” said Terry Holt, a GOP strategist who as a young NRCC staffer was one of the few who saw Santorum’s potential that year.

Despite being put into a more Democratic district, he won reelection in 1992 with 61 percent of the vote.

In the House, he became a member of the Gang of Seven, a group of freshman Republicans that included now-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who railed against the scandal at the House Bank and House Post Office. Their efforts helped undermine the Democratic majority, paving the way for the Republican takeover in 1994.

Even as a new House member, Santorum was looking to move up. In 1994, a good year for Republicans, he defeated incumbent Democratic senator Harris Wofford. He brought many of the same partisan tactics that were commonplace in then-speaker Newt Gingrich’s House to the more sedate Senate. He took on conservative causes, playing a key role in the passage of welfare reform. He created resentment with his hard-charging ways and partisan elbows.

Reelected in 2000, he won the number three post in the party’s leadership. While championing conservative causes, he continued to pay attention to the needs of Pennsylvania. He supported increases in the minimum wage and opposed right-to-work legislation (which he now says he would support as president). He continued to work cooperatively with then-Republican senator Arlen Specter, though they disagreed on most social issues.

Pollster Madonna, who described Santorum’s conservatism as “pretty genuine . . . the real deal,” said Romney can make a plausible argument that, as a senator, Santorum supported measures that today look like conservative heresy. But he said that shows how once-routine actions, even for conservatives, have been reinterpreted in the tea-party-dominated Republican Party.

“Republicans supported programs and pork and earmarks for their state, especially when you get into a state like Pennsylvania or Ohio, which had lost jobs because of the end of the industrial revolution,” he said.

Former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, said the attacks by Romney “are correct but there are reasons for them. He [Santorum] played by the rules of the game. Earmarks were commonplace and he worked to make sure Pennsylvania got its fair share of them, sometimes at my request as mayor [of Philadelphia] or governor.”

David Urban, a lobbyist and former Specter chief of staff who supports Santorum’s candidacy, called Santorum pragmatic in his approach as a senator. “I say he was pragmatic because he was a guy who knew how to get reelected in a state that definitely was not as conservative as he was personally but without yielding on his principles,” he said.

After his 2000 election, say some longtime Santorum watchers, the senator became more outspoken on social issues, almost as if on a mission. But what may have been most remarkable about his career to that point is that someone as conservative as Santorum could continue to win elections in a state that has been as closely divided ideologically as Pennsylvania.

As one Pennsylvania Republican put it, “He was able to run through the raindrops without getting wet.” As his views became better known, and as the political climate turned against him, his ideology caught up with him.

That was in 2006, when he drew as his opponent Robert P. Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of a revered former governor. Casey also happened to be a Democrat who opposed abortion and gun control. In a year when Democrats took back control of the House and Senate, Santorum got wiped out, losing by 18 points, the most of any incumbent Republican defeated that year.

Predicting problems

A Republican and a Democratic strategist said independently that the 2006 race may not be a good measure of Santorum’s viability or strength as a candidate, given the conditions. They point to his earlier campaigns as proof that he is a shrewd strategist and a dogged and effective campaigner. Another view is that, until 2006, he had been lucky in drawing weak opponents in reelection campaigns.

The implication of that is, if he was to become the Republican nominee, the weakness he showed in the suburbs of Philadelphia that year would be replicated in state after battleground state. Karl Rove, speaking Friday on Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News, said Santorum’s position on contraception will be “hard to explain” to a general election audience.

Privately, strategists in both parties predict huge problems for Santorum. A GOP strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be candid, predicted that Santorum would be “eviscerated” by the Democrats in a general election. A Democrat who knows Santorum’s record intimately and who also spoke on condition of anonymity to offer candid analysis, said Santorum would be “a Martian to women in the suburbs.”

“I love Rick Santorum,” the GOP strategist said. “But they’re going to put the wood to him. He’ll get defined by the Obama people so fast he won’t know what hit him.”

Obama advisers made it known this week that they have begun to look more seriously at Santorum as a prospective rival, but already they see vulnerabilities they would try to exploit.

GOP strategist Holt said Santorum may not be more conservative than many others in the party, “but he’s said and done things that are off-key” and that have undermined his potential appeal.

“This is his moment to shine,” he added, “but now it becomes not so much a matter of ideology but of tone. There’s no question that he’s very conservative. Now it’s how he handles questions that will be the test.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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