The Santorum surge - Macleans.ca

The Santorum surge

Support is soaring for the father of seven who offers the rhetorical red meat Romney can’t

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The santorum surge

Eric Miller/Reuters

With his sweater vests and earnestness, Rick Santorum has been called the Mister Rogers of the Republican presidential race. He’s also the new consensus conservative and, all of a sudden, the new front-runner—the last man standing amidst the once-crowded field of candidates not named Mitt Romney. In the remarkably fluid primary contest, where candidates have leapt to the lead only to fall back within weeks, Santorum’s surge could not be better timed. He’s catching fire just as the nominating contest heads toward the March 6 “Super Tuesday” bonanza, in which 10 states will vote.

Support for the former Pennsylvania senator has surged since his triple victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado earlier this month. Now 30 per cent of Republican primary voters nationally say they support Santorum, compared with 27 per cent for presumed front-runner Romney, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Feb. 14. Other polls suggest his national lead may be even larger. And Santorum has the potential to keep building his momentum this month with the Michigan primary on Feb. 28. Michigan was considered home turf for Romney: he grew up there and his father, George, was governor of the state. But Santorum now leads Romney there 39 to 24 per cent among likely primary voters, according to a Public Policy Polling survey. A Santorum win could deal an embarrassing blow to Romney ahead of Super Tuesday.

In a year when many Republican voters say they are looking for the conservative alternative to Romney, Santorum has now displaced Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, as the favourite among the party’s conservative base of right-wing voters, evangelicals, and Tea Party supporters. “It used to be that Gingrich was leading with all these groups and Romney was staying competitive enough with them to hold the overall lead. No more—a consensus conservative candidate finally seems to be emerging and it’s Santorum,” said a report from Public Policy Polling on Monday.

Part of the story is the mutually destructive television ad war waged in January by Romney and Gingrich (and their allied political action committees). Thanks in part to the harsh attack ads, Romney’s favourability rating crashed by 23 points since December to 43 per cent, according to Public Policy Polling, while Gingrich’s fell by 32 points also to 43 per cent, the poll suggested. Meanwhile, Santorum emerged unscathed with 64 per cent seeing him favourably, while only 22 per cent hold a negative impression.

Santorum’s supporters point to his unwavering views on social issues such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, as well as his small-government policies. “I want a candidate who can express conservative principles primarily because he really believes in them,” says Russ Day, a Washington attorney and Santorum supporter who came to hear the candidate speak at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of activists from around the U.S. in Washington. “There is a concern that Romney believes whatever is politically expedient to believe.” Day says Santorum’s recent string of victories changes the entire race because of the enthusiasm and money that has been pouring into his campaign as a result.

Santorum’s strategists say the father of seven has a unique appeal to working-class voters that both President Barack Obama and Romney have trouble connecting with. He is touted as having an edge on Romney in blue-collar rust-belt swing states like Ohio. The Wall Street Journal has dubbed him the “supply-sider for the working man.” Santorum would offer tax cuts for the manufacturing industry—the kind of picking-winners-and-losers that fiscal conservatives viscerally dislike, but which Santorum defends as necessary to protect a sector of the economy walloped by global competition.

His appeal to hard-core conservatives is not perfect. While he touts his fiscal conservative credentials, he has been a frequent user of “earmarks”—congressional funding for pet projects in his state. Millions of dollars flowed to Pennsylvania—and to companies whose lobbyists often donated to Santorum’s re-election campaign. It was the kind of Washington-insider behaviour decried by the Tea Party movement. But his supporters dismiss such concerns. “Santorum was playing the game by the rules that had been laid,” says Day. “If everyone else is bringing home the bacon, then he shouldn’t let Pennsylvania languish.”

Still, like Obama when he won the White House, the former attorney and long-time politician has no executive experience. Santorum has not been a governor or a business executive like Romney, nor a congressional leader like Gingrich. He is little-known nationally. For some voters, that is a deal-breaker. “Look at Romney’s experience in the private sector and with the Olympics [Romney was brought in to be CEO of the troubled Salt Lake City Games and turned them into a financial success]. I don’t think Santorum has anything like that in his resumé,” says Joe Burns, a 32-year-old government worker from Syracuse, N.Y., at CPAC.

But that’s a selling point for supporters like Foster Freiss, a wealthy investor and contributor to conservative causes who has been the single largest donor to the super PAC supporting Santorum. “We cannot continue to support these wonderful experienced warhorses,” he told the CPAC audience, referring to Gingrich and Romney as well as former candidates Bob Dole and John McCain. He said Democrats have won the White House by bringing out fresh faces. “They brought Clinton and Carter from nowhere. They brought Barack Obama from beyond nowhere,” he said to laughter and applause.

Yet the perils of Santorum’s hardline conservatism were on display in the loss of his Senate seat in 2006—a race he lost by 18 points, the largest margin of defeat by a Republican senator in his state’s history. “You just have to look at his most recent race in Pennsylvania—he lost big,” said Burns, the Romney supporter.

Santorum also has a history of controversial remarks that could turn off independent voters and women, and could become fodder for attack ads. For example, he seemed to equate homosexual relationships with bestiality and pedophilia. “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever, to my knowledge, included homosexuality,” Santorum said in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press. “That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

Last week, after the Pentagon announced that it would begin allowing women soldiers to serve in more positions close to front-line combat, Santorum criticized the decision. “I think that could be a very compromising situation where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved,” he said, drawing rebukes from some Republicans, including the governor of Virginia, whose daughter is an Iraq war veteran.

Santorum defended himself by saying that he was not suggesting women are too “emotional” for combat but that male troops would lose focus on the mission out of “a natural instinct to protect someone who’s a female.” He has also been on the defensive about his views on working women. In a 2005 book, It Takes a Family (a riposte to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village), Santorum wrote: “The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.” He has since said decisions to either work or stay home should be respected.

But for now, he offers the kind of rhetorical red meat that energizes Republican primary voters who don’t trust Romney. Santorum urges them not to compromise but to nominate the candidate who excites the base. “Why would undecided voters vote for a candidate whose party is not excited about [him]?”

But Romney supporters dismiss the challenge from Santorum as just the latest twist in a long campaign that Romney is capable of enduring. “I think Romney has the organization and money to see this thing through,” says Thomas Dadey, chairman of the Republican party in Onandaga County in upstate New York, who came to hear the candidates speak at CPAC. While some Republicans fret that the primary is playing out too slowly and that the eventual nominee will limp into the general election with a bloodied image and a divided party, Dadey is not worried. “Hillary and Obama beat the snot out of each other right until June,” he said. “And it’s only February.”