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Can Santorum Broaden His Base? Can Santorum Broaden His Base?

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / CAMPAIGN 2012

Can Santorum Broaden His Base?

Observers say he's not making headway among women, moderates, or GOP’s affluent, college-educated wing.

Rick Santorum poses for a photo after speaking Wednesday at Temple Baptist Church in Powell, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

photo of Naureen Khan
February 29, 2012

Rick Santorum may be tempted to take a victory lap after limiting Mitt Romney to a narrow win in his own home state of Michigan in Tuesday's presidential primary — but the former Pennsylvania senator should keep it short.

If he hopes to do well in the next 10 contests on Super Tuesday across a wide swath of geographically and ideologically diverse states on March 6, it’s apparent he must find a way to address the same vulnerabilities that have plagued him in the race all along. The momentum he gained with his surprise victory in Iowa and subsequent wins in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota seems perpetually on the verge of being extinguished, especially in the face of Romney’s considerable organizational and financial strength.

Exit polls show that while Santorum does well among those who label themselves “very conservative,” evangelicals, and lower-income, working-class voters, he’s not making much headway among women, more moderate voters, or the GOP’s affluent, college-educated wing.

 

“Santorum is writing off 60 percent of the Republican base,” said GOP consultant Rick Wilson. “You don’t win this game by subtraction, you win it by addition.”

Santorum’s tendency to alienate those groups is linked to his tendency to eagerly take up sword and shield in the culture wars.

In the last two weeks, it wasn’t Santorum’s plans to revive the manufacturing sector that made headlines. It was, instead, his remarks about President Obama’s “phony theology”; his charge about the snobbery of believing everyone should go to college; his disdain for the absolute separation of church and state as articulated by the first Catholic president; and his 2008 comments about Satan’s influence on the United States. 

“He does really well when he focuses on his economic prescription for the country and his connections to common people given his roots -- seasoned with cultural issues and their connection to the economic issues,” said GOP consultant Keith Appell. “That’s when he becomes a really attractive, Reaganesque candidate.”

The only problem for Santorum is that the seasoning often overwhelms everything else. Santorum campaign operatives have insisted that the media chooses to play up the social issues to the exclusion of all else and that Santorum is simply too noble to dodge the questions, unlike his rivals. There seems to be no imminent plan to get Santorum to stick to a more disciplined message, even in a climate in which nine out of 10 registered voters said the economy is extremely or very important to their decision in November, according to a Gallup poll released on Wednesday.

“I think every candidate should be asked about social issues,” said senior Santorum campaign adviser John Brabender during a conference call on Wednesday. “We feel very comfortable that we have a candidate who is extremely solid and consistent.”

GOP strategist Wilson puts it a different way. “He is a guy who has proven time and again that you can walk him into a trap,” Wilson said.  “This is a guy if asked about national exorcism policy, he would actually say something.”

Santorum also didn’t help matters when he spent a large portion of the last GOP debate defending his legislative record, from earmarks to No Child Left Behind. Gone was the aggressive upstart who could once effectively pin down Romney on his own problematic record.

Nevertheless, Santorum’s election-night speech gave hints that, protestations aside, his operation is aware that at least some course correction is needed. He spent a good chunk of his speech extolling the virtues and professional accomplishments of three women in his family: his 93-year-old mother, a working woman with a professional degree who earned more than her husband; his wife, a lawyer, nurse and author; and his daughter, Elizabeth, who is frequently on the campaign trail. 

“I’ve been very, very blessed, very blessed with great role models for me, as someone who goes out and tries to do the job I’m doing right now, to balance the rigors of running a campaign and trying to maintain a good and strong family,” Santorum said of the trio of women. “We all have to do that as Americans.”

 

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