The Washington Post

After losing Michigan, Arizona primaries, Rick Santorum runs away from the social fringe


Rick Santorum doesn’t do subtle — especially now that he’s starting to realize that he’s all but cooked.

The GOP presidential candidate didn’t even wait for the networks to call Michigan for Mitt Romney Tuesday night before running, hands waving, away from the fringey social preoccupations that marked his campaign over the last few weeks.

Encouraging college education is snobbish? Santorum began his speech by describing how his mother not only went to college in the 1930s, she got a graduate degree. That, Santorum said, was “unusual” — one assumes in a good way.

Do women belong in the workplace? Santorum’s mother, he continued, was a working nurse who made more money than her husband. She was a “strong” woman, a “professional person.” Santorum met his wife as she was launching a law career. And his daughter, Santorum insisted, is one of his most effective campaign surrogates.

Should the government tell Americans how to live their lives? The balance of Santorum’s speech involved him waving the Constitution and boasting about his “freedom agenda,” under which a “limited government” no longer “crushes us every single day with...the idea that they know better than you how to run your life.”

Santorum didn’t quite come out in favor of distributing birth control in elementary schools — the sort of thing that it wouldn’t really surprise anyone to hear him accuse Democrats of supporting. But, as he awkwardly lingered over his words at the top of his speech, it all appeared about as transparently strategic as a Romney flip-flop.

After making inroads with very conservative GOP voters, Santorum’s movement away from running a turn-out-the-base-of-the-base-of-the-base campaign could conceivably hurt his candidacy, since one of his greatest political assets is his reputation for authenticity. Yet refocusing on a message about the economy and limited government is still the right move, of course. For one thing, it might stave off a campaign-killing gender gap in his support that some of his recent rhetoric promised to produce.

Given Santorum’s inability to avoid reopening largely settled matters in the culture wars or to eschew hyperbole in this campaign, though, I’d be surprised if he stayed on script for long. Even if he did, YouTube would still indelibly archive all of those clips.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.

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