In a Romney campaign conference call Tuesday that was designed to dismantle Rick Santorum's conservative credentials, one area of the candidate's record remained untouched: his experience as a general in the culture wars.
"He has certainly been outspoken on social issues and we honor his record in that regard," said Jim Talent, the former Missouri Senator who endorsed Mitt Romney.
Talent proceeded to lay in to other chapters of Santorum's record--his votes for No Child Left Behind, and Medicare Part D, for example--but social issues never came up again.
It might seem strategically unwise to cede such a significant issue set to Romney's main opponent, but Talent didn't exactly have a better option. In many ways, Talent's silence was emblematic of Santorum's greatest advantage going forward: none of his opponents is in a position to credibly one-up him when it comes to cultural conservatism.
Romney, who launched his political career in Massachusetts, suffers from a long list of past positions and soundbites that make him sound like a social moderate at best. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-stem cell research—all before he changed his tone, and often his position. The campaign has tried to get around the flip-flops by pointing to Romney's conservative lifestyle—his successful marriage, his commitment to his faith, and his picture-perfect family. But that's not enough to overtake Santorum as the social conservative in the race.
Newt Gingrich doesn't have to deal with the same level of inconsistency in his record, but his personal life makes some conservative Christians cringe. And while Ron Paul can, by all accounts, lay claim to the best of both Romney and Gingrich's arguments, culture war rhetoric is an uncomfortable fit with his libertarian message.
All of which leaves Santorum as the unchallenged, untouchable champion of social conservatism in the race.
Of course, Romney—and, to some extent, Gingrich—are both betting that the economy will be on Republicans' minds when they go to the voting booth. But social issues have the unique ability to suddenly surge into relevancy when no one expected it (see the contraception battle of last week), and a sizable chunk of the GOP base will always be more moved by abortion and gay marriage than anything else.
To leave Santorum as the unquestioned winner on those issues is risky. But as Talent made clear Tuesday, Romney and Gingrich don't have a better option.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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