Proposition 8, Catholics and birth control, Rick Santorum

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

Proposition 8! Catholics and birth control! Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood! Could Rick Santorum have asked for a better confluence of controversies?

The man and the moment seem to have collided and the man is Santorum, not Mitt Romney. While he can still make a tenuous claim to being the Republican front-runner, Romney can't say this is the campaign he expected or is best positioned to exploit.

The 2012 election was supposed to be about jobs and the economy and, though that will still be central, the dynamic has shifted. The dreadful economic numbers that, six months ago, threatened to make Barack Obama a one-term president are now not so dreadful. The good news is not great, but it may be enough to make voters feel slightly more upbeat and give Democrats room to spin a positive story.

Meanwhile, the culture war has gone hot:

• The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that California Proposition 8’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional and the issue is heading to the Supreme Court.

• In Washington state, the legislature has just legalized same-sex marriage and the issue may be on the November ballot in Maine and New Jersey.

• The Susan G. Komen Foundation announced plans to remove funding from Planned Parenthood, provoking an uproar among those who believed the decision was driven by anti-abortion sentiments. When the decision was reversed, anti-abortion conservatives were equally miffed.

• A new federal rule requiring religious institutions to include coverage of contraceptives in non-church employee health insurance plans has enraged Catholic bishops and given the Republican candidates a new line of attack against the president.

Alarm among social conservatives over all these developments may have inspired them to show up for Tuesday’s Missouri primary and the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and give their votes and three big victories to the candidate who has been among the most outspoken cultural conservatives in politics, Rick Santorum. While Mitt Romney has oozed his way through multiple contortions on gay rights, abortion and limits on religious freedom over the years, Santorum has been solid. He has said abortion doctors should be jailed. He insists birth control is bad. He vehemently opposes gay marriage. He firmly believes religion has a central place in government.

In the past, he has been considered extreme on social issues, but, with the other Republican candidates now echoing his positions, Santorum seems to be in the mainstream of his party. Could this, at last, be his moment? Conventional wisdom has been wrong so often in this campaign that it is worth contemplating the possibility that the expected debate over economic issues between Romney and Obama may not come to pass. Instead, the campaign of 2012 may bring to a boil the culture war that has been simmering for years.

If so, we may finally get a clearer answer to a big question that lies at the center of our political life: Is America essentially a conservative, religiously-oriented country that cherishes small-town values and traditions, or have we reached a tipping point where tolerance and even celebration of alternative lifestyles, cultures and ethnicities has become our dominant ethic?

If the Republicans nominate Rick Santorum, the nation will be having that debate and it won’t be quiet or comfortable.

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