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Spotlight is on Rick Santorum in key campaign stretch

February 20, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • Rick Santorum speaks during a Tea Party rally Feb. 18, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio.
Rick Santorum speaks during a Tea Party rally Feb. 18, 2012 in Columbus,… (Jay LaPrete/Getty Images )

The glare of the spotlight will be especially strong on Rick Santorum this week. Just how well he navigates the coming days may prove to be the key moment of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, either extending the fight well beyond Super Tuesday or giving Mitt Romney a chance to rebound.

The former Pennsylvania senator largely avoided heavy scrutiny in 2011, when a rotating cast of other GOP hopefuls enjoyed a fleeting boomlet before crashing back to earth. Only in the days before Iowa's caucuses did Santorum get serious treatment as a potential victor, based on his strategy of out-working and out-campaigning anyone else in the race.

But he never got the bounce a winner typically gets after Iowa, in part because it wasn't clear he won until weeks later. Romney's New Hampshire firewall proved as solid as granite. And Newt Gingrich used a pair of crackling debate performances to power his campaign to a victory in South Carolina.

Romney's organizational and financial might again carried the day in Florida, and on through Nevada days later.  But it was just as Romney seemed closer to locking down frontrunner status for good when Santorum made his play, winning the momentum from a trio of wins in lightly contested races in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri that he failed to gain from Iowa a month earlier.

Now, with a key primary in Michigan one week away and Super Tuesday quick to follow, a candidate who campaigned for months under the radar is now on full display. The key question in the Republican race is which Santorum makes the biggest impression.

Blue Collar Populist

To win in Michigan, the Santorum campaign is pushing the message that he is a candidate with the conservative credentials primary voters want, and the economic message that can win in November.

In a Detroit News op-ed this morning, Santorum reminds voters of his blue-collar roots, the son of a coal miner from southwest Pennsylvania who first, as it turns out, worked in the auto factories of Detroit.

Santorum outlines a plan to boost the manufacturing sector by cutting taxes, and slashing regulation.

"Ultimately, the success of America is not found in managing the economy. It's in getting Washington off of the backs of ordinary Americans and creating the atmosphere for economic growth. We've done it before, and we can do it again," he writes.

It's a similar message from Santorum's Iowa caucus-night speech that was well-received, but had little shelf life.

Social Warrior

Santorum himself seems most comfortable, though, in making a vigorous defense for his views on social issues. That's one reason why that Iowa speech was quickly forgotten; in New Hampshire, he quickly got bogged down in a debate over gay marriage, which he compared to polygamy. Rather than pivot back to the economy, Santorum defended his position at every town hall meeting when it came up.

This weekend, as he campaigned in the Super Tuesday state of Ohio, Santorum made waves for discussing what he called Obama's "phony theology."

According to CBS, the comment was made while discussing environmental policy.

"It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible -- a different theology," he said.

That was the newsmaking moment Sunday when Santorum appeared on "Face The Nation," where he said he wasn't questioning Obama's faith.

"I accept the fact that the president's a Christian," he said. "I just said that when you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man, and says that, you know, we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the Earth by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven."

Team Obama signaled this is the Santorum they hope leaves a lasting impression. Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on ABC's "This Week" that his comments were "well over the line."

Washington Insider

Mitt Romney's campaign may wish it could make the same case against Santorum -- that his views are far to the right even of most Republicans, and that the Obama campaign could easily portray him as a religious zealot in November when the party's best case against the incumbent is an economic one.

But the former Massachusetts governor -- who is trying hard to sell himself as an authentic conservative -- can hardly argue someone else is too conservative to win. So the Santorum that the Romney campaign wants voters to see is the Santorum who spent decades in Washington voting for the very things that inspired the rise of the tea party movement in 2009.

The Romney campaign again circulated Santorum's rap sheet this morning, noting among other things that he voted to raise the debt ceiling five times, supported earmarks for his home state,  and backed Sonia Sotomayor's circuit court nomination.

"Congressman-turned-Senator Santorum spent a long time in Washington, where he cast votes that defy explanation," spokesman Ryan Williams said. "If Congress is part of the problem, Senator Santorum isn't part of the solution."

Ron Paul made a similar case against Santorum oon Sunday, saying he had an "atrocious" voting record that was more liberal than conservative.

Santorum again has a busy schedule of events this week, taking him from Ohio to Michigan to Arizona. In Arizona he'll have what may be his most important public appearance to date, in the first nationally-televised debate in more than a month, and the only one on the schedule from now until Super Tuesday.

michael.memoli@latimes.com
twitter.com/mikememoli

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