Obama campaign turns attention to Santorum

February 17, 2012

Rick Santorum’s surprising momentum at a critical stage in the presidential race has forced the Obama campaign to reassess its reelection strategy, which for months has revolved around the likelihood that Mitt Romney would end up as the president’s Republican rival.

Obama’s Chicago-based reelection team has begun digging into Santorum’s background, diverting opposition researchers who thus far had been focused on Romney. They also blasted an e-mail to supporters in Pennsylvania, asking them to submit their most damning recollections of Santorum, a former senator from the state.

Though campaign officials still view Romney as the likely nominee, they have begun to consider the implications of a Santorum victory. They view him as a weaker general election opponent, but one who has shown an ability to connect with the population that is most disillusioned with Obama: white, blue-collar voters.

“Looking at the way the Republican race is unfolding, we’d be derelict if we didn’t begin looking at Santorum as a real potential opponent,” said Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for the Obama campaign. “We hadn’t been doing that, but circumstances have changed.”

Santorum has appeared increasingly confident of his prospects, campaigning heavily in Michigan — a state that until recently was considered a shoo-in for Romney — and touting his strong poll results in Ohio. Both are crucial swing states with large numbers of manufacturing workers.

He has centered his message on his social conservatism and blue-collar roots. But he has also tried to address his biggest weakness — the perception that Romney would do better against Obama. During a campaign stop Friday in Shelby Township, Mich., Santorum argued that he is more electable than Romney and represents a clearer contrast to the president.

“Do you want someone who can go up against Barack Obama, take him on on the big issues of health care . . . the Wall Street bailouts, cap-and-trade?” Santorum told several hundred people at a rally hosted by the Michigan Faith and Family Coalition. “Or do you want someone who can just manage Washington a little better?”

Santorum’s campaign further tried to reinforce his electability message by announcing Friday that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who previously had endorsed Romney, was switching his support to Santorum because he believed he could win against Obama.

Romney campaigned Friday in Idaho, attending a fundraiser and rally. And Obama, capped a three-day road trip with an appearance at a Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., where he outlined a plan to boost foreign exports.

Democratic strategists say they long had prepared for a winding and unpredictable Republican primary race, but Santorum’s surge caught them by surprise, partly because they did not expect Romney to face such a difficult path to the nomination.

Early on, Obama’s campaign officials had made it clear that they viewed Romney’s venture capitalist past as a liability. But they did not expect that Romney’s rival for the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich, would use the issue to such great effect. Romney’s status as a front-runner was further threatened by his struggle to talk about his personal wealth and why he paid a lower tax rate than many middle-class Americans.

Despite Santorum’s momentum, Democrats see him as a significantly flawed candidate in a general election.

They believe his politics, particularly on social issues, are too conservative for most swing voters. Santorum opposes abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, and has made a central theme of his campaign his opposition to the Obama administration’s mandate that religious institutions offer contraceptive coverage.

Democrats also predict that Santorum would be a less formidable fundraiser than Romney, who has galvanized the financial community behind his candidacy.

On economic issues, Obama supporters see Santorum and Romney as equally vulnerable. Both opposed the bailout of the auto companies and have promised to repeal new laws regulating Wall Street. Both have endorsed tax cuts that the Democrats will argue help the rich, hurt the middle class and would force draconian reductions to education spending and the social safety net.

But the president’s strategists acknowledge that Santorum appears to be connecting with white working-class voters, who have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and job losses and who largely disapprove of Obama’s leadership. If Santorum wins the nomination, he could draw strong support in midwestern swing states crucial to Obama.

Romney “can’t capitalize on the president’s weakness with lower-income, non-college voters,” said a Democratic strategist working to reelect the president, granted anonymity in order to speak freely about internal strategy. “Rick Santorum has a better message for that community.”

Santorum’s approval rating among GOP voters in January jumped 12 points to 61 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, with the increase almost entirely among those without a college degree. Romney has struggled with this group, according to exit polls.

Santorum has a mixed record in his appeal to swing voters. Despite his deeply conservative values, he successfully won election to the Senate twice in Pennsylvania, a swing state that has leaned Democratic in recent presidential elections. But he failed to win a third term, losing by a crushing 18 points to a Democratic challenger, Sen. Bob Casey.

He has said that the 2006 loss was a result of the generally negative atmosphere for Republican candidates that year, and that his previous victories are proof that he can win over independent voters without compromising his conservative principles.

Staff writers Dan Balz, Rosalind S. Helderman and David Nakamura contributed to this report. Helderman reported from Shelby Township, Mich.

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