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For Some Catholics, Santorum Is A Custom-Ordered Presidential Candidate For Some Catholics, Santorum Is A Custom-Ordered Presidential Candidat...

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campaign 2012

For Some Catholics, Santorum Is A Custom-Ordered Presidential Candidate

But the former Pennsylvania senator is 'a hard nudge in the ribs' to others.

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Rick Santorum at a campaign rally Saturday in Blue Ash, Ohio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)(Eric Gay/AP)

CHILLICOTHE, OHIO – Rick Santorum is like a custom-ordered presidential candidate for Judy Harness. The 48-year-old resident of this small town an hour south of Columbus works as a nurse helping to deliver babies, a job she says has given her an up-close look at a medical culture that she believes is too prone to promote abortion.

Like Santorum, Harness is a politically conservative Catholic who opposes abortion. So it wasn’t a surprise that she arrived at the former Pennsylvania senator’s Friday rally in the local high school gymnasium early, eager to grab a front-row seat among a crowd of roughly 500 people. Santorum’s outspoken opposition to abortion, along with his vigorous support of other culturally conservative causes like traditional marriage, are “dead on,” Harness said. In her lifetime, she said she’s never seen a candidate so fearlessly talk about cultural issues, even at great political peril to himself.

 

“He has the guts to say it, even if it’s unpopular in the Republican Party,” Harness said. “I don’t even think the Republican Party knows how to deal with him because he’s so honest.”

Harness is one of many Republican Catholics, in Ohio and across the country, who see Santorum as a fearless champion of their values. It’s a bonus, they say, that he shares their religion.

But their support doesn’t tell the full story about the Catholic vote, in Ohio or in this Republican primary season. To some Catholic Republicans, Santorum’s barbed rhetoric seems over the top and out of sync with an electorate that overwhelmingly considers birth control a settled issue and the economy its top issue.

 

As Patrick Corcoran, a 58-year-old businessman who also attended Friday’s rally, put it, Santorum means different things to different people. “It’s an affirmation for us,” he said. “For others it’s hard nudge in the ribs.”

The division among Catholic voters isn’t just a philosophical dispute – it has real political implications for Tuesday’s GOP primary in the Buckeye State. In 2008, exit polls of the Republican primary here showed 25 percent of voters identified as Catholic, a bloc large enough to decide a race that polls show is nearing a dead-heat.

Santorum’s message on the stump isn’t tailored to Catholic voters, although he touts an array of social issues that appeal to culturally conservative Catholics. Rather, his appeal is geared more toward religious conservatives in general, including born-again Christians, a group that has been his core constituency in presidential primary contests this year.

During a Saturday speech in Lima, Ohio, a town located in the conservative northwest part of the state, the onetime senator warned about the danger of suggesting rights come from man, not God. “Secular societies, when power is invested in people, tend to be tyrannical societies.”

 

Minutes later, he began railing about the professed belief of liberals in the separation of church and state. “Except, of course, when the church wants to tell the state what to do,” he said, referring to President Obama’s proposal, which he’s since modified, to require religious-affiliated hospitals and universities to offer health insurance that covers contraception. The audience rumbled in approval.

The overtly religious themes of Santorum’s rhetoric have drawn criticism from some Republicans, who say voters care far more about the economy amid a soaring national debt and unemployment above 8 percent. Many Catholic voters in Ohio feel the same way, said Richard Finan, who is Catholic and a former state senator from the suburbs of Cincinnati.

“I think this election, without doubt, is about jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Finan, who served as president pro tempore of the Ohio state Senate. “Those are the three main things,” he said.

Santorum’s rhetoric also can also grate. A prime example was when he said John F. Kennedy’s campaign speech emphasizing the separation of church and state – given to ease people’s minds about electing the first Catholic president -- made him want to “throw up.” He later apologized for the remark, but the damage was done, according to Curt Steiner, a Columbus-based GOP strategist who is Catholic.

“You don’t unnecessarily throw up on John Kennedy,” he quipped.

In a possible sign of things to come Tuesday in the Ohio primary, Santorum didn’t do well with Catholic Republicans in Michigan. They constituted 30 percent of the vote, and exit polls showed Mitt Romney won the group handily, 44 percent to 37 percent.  

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