Rick Santorum: Gaffe Proof

His recent string of over-the-top comments hasn’t done any lasting damage to his campaign. Are we more conservative — on gay rights, and women’s roles — than we think? posted on

Santorum looks at a copy of the U. S. Constitution while speaking at a Tea Party rally February 18, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Getty Images

Rick Santorum says the darndest things.

In just the past month, the surging candidate has implied that Barack Obama and millions of Mainline Protestants aren’t true Christians. He told an adoring crowd in Fargo, North Dakota, “I don’t think God will continue to bless America if we continue to kill 1.2 million children every year.” He attacked standard prenatal testing because it “ends up in more abortions.” He told the Ohio Christian Alliance that the liberal argument given to doctors faced with patients with prenatal issues is “we have to give mothers and fathers the choice to kill them. That’s the argument.” He added that neither the federal government “or for that matter state governments” should be involved in running schools.

The press dutifully transcribed all these remarks, but none of them raised a ruckus for more than a few hours. They’re just the latest in a long line of Santorum quotes — on homosexuality, on women’s roles, on contraception and abortion — that seem to have lost their capacity to shock. And though they’re still well to the right of public opinion, as reflected in polls, they’ve done nothing to hurt Santorum, whose campaign has attained an aura of momentum after winning three states in a row earlier this month. For Rick Santorum, there’s no such thing as a gaffe anymore.

There are two ways to see the apparent mainstreaming of Santorum’s minority views on social issues. The consensus among Republican and Democratic leaders is that it’s an artifact of the Republican primary, and that if he manages to win his party’s nomination, President Barack Obama will crush him among women voters in particular.

Santorum’s own bet is different: His refusal to soft-pedal his views on faith and sex seems to reflect his view that voters value steadfastness, and also that an America that has been enlarging gay rights and expanding women’s roles for a generation is ready for a dramatic, traditionalist reaction.

That reaction is palpable at some of Santorum’s more remote stops, and he tends to reserve his more controversial remarks for audiences like the one that greeted him in Fargo, North Dakota on Feb. 15, where he was the first presidential candidate to visit in 2012. There, he delivered the comment about killing 1.2 million children a year shortly before telling the crowd that the other candidates all share his stances.

“If you look at the other candidates in the race, they have the same positions on the social issues as I do,” Santorum said. “Then why am I the social conservative candidate who’s too conservative to be elected because I’m a social conservative, if they have the same positions I do? Could it maybe be that some of you might think they don’t actually have those positions? Could it be that they don’t talk about those things?”

“Could it be that they’re uncomfortable talking about those things?”

Maybe the other candidates share his views, generally, on gay marriage and abortion. But they certainly aren’t eager to pick a fight over something as arcane as the Crusades, as Santorum did in South Carolina last January: “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical.”

Nor would they be comfortable with describing Obama’s religion as “phony theology,” as Santorum did this past weekend in Ohio. If Mitt Romney made either of those comments, his campaign would have to go into full damage-control mode. For Santorum, those comments made the news, but didn’t take long to cycle out of memory.

Being gaffe-immune, Santorum is also immune from attacks on his conservative voting record – something that’s forced Romney to the right and Romney’s surrogates to a flurry of press conference calls attacking Santorum on everything but social policy (“Romney Michigan Campaign To Hold Conference Call On Rick Santorum’s Unapologetic Defense Of Big Labor And Big Spending,” for example).

Romney can’t touch Santorum on his record as a social conservative— so he’s stuck trying to imitate him. The Conservative Political Action Conference was a moment for Romney to fluff up his conservative feathers, and he did so, referring to himself as “severely conservative” in his speech and winning the CPAC straw poll amid suggestions that his campaign rigged it.

Conservative voters are not fooled.

Leeta Van Buelow, a homemaker from Ann Arbor, Michigan, told BuzzFeed that she thinks Santorum “won’t betray us. He’s what we need.” She didn’t know enough about Romney to comment on him.

Greg Behling, a precinct delegate from northern Michigan who belongs to four different Tea Party groups, said that Romney “was born and raised here. But when he left, he left a lot of things behind,” alluding to the conservative values that Behling and voters like him prize.

The size and enthusiasm of the crowds Santorum has pulled in lately have underscored that connection. The Fargo rally became so hot and crowded that members of the audience started leaving midway through, and appearances in Ohio and Michigan had people sitting on the floor. According to the latest Public Policy Polling numbers, Santorum’s small lead over Romney in Michigan exists because it’s “a reflection of voters being more comfortable with where he is ideologically”; 48 percent of those polled find Santorum’s beliefs closer to theirs, while the number is 32 percent for Romney. (The poll’s top-line has been disputed because of an unusually large number of Evangelical Christians in the sample, but the result in any event underscore the ideological element of Santorum’s support.)

This all comes in a period in which Santorum has actually tried to avoid talking about social issues, zoning back in on abortion and gay marriage mostly when he’s asked by voters or the press. It’s an issue he seems to be aware of, and bothered by, as he seeks to focus on employment and manufacturing during the election season that conventional wisdom says is all about jobs. He recently cut off a reporter’s question after an Ohio Christian Alliance event, saying, “You ask a lot of questions about social issues.”

The Michigan numbers partly validate the campaign’s strategy of not censoring Santorum’s more hardline views to make him palatable to non-hardcore conservatives. Campaign manager Mike Biundo described it to BuzzFeed as “not getting off message, not letting the pundits tell us what our message should be.” Conservative voters value Santorum’s consistency, even if the positions he’s consistent on are oftentimes extreme. Behling, the delegate from Michigan, said that Romeny had “flip-flopped too many times for me to be comfortable with him,” a sentiment echoed by many voters like him.

This strategy may only take Santorum so far, as in 2006 when he lost his Senate seat by 18 points after messages about “radical feminism” and other cultural issues didn’t sit well with a Pennsylvania electorate focused on the economy.

But for now, Rick Santorum’s status as the fiercest culture warrior in the race isn’t swallowing his campaign, but helping it thrive. And the more it thrives, the more opportunity Santorum has to express his worldview, not as a fringe candidate, but as someone who looks more and more like a serious contender.

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