The Santorum question: Is he too extreme for the middle?

Rick Santorum is winning the hearts of conservative voters with uncompromising social views that, he says, are drawn from the same well as his fiscal and environmental policies: a reading of America's founding documents that stresses their Judeo-Christian underpinnings.

In friendly settings around the country, in hotel ballrooms and public school auditoriums, Santorum has framed the 2012 election as one for the very salvation of the country and its culture.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is about foundational things," he told a Republican gathering in Phoenix on Tuesday, one day before a debate with the remaining GOP candidates in Mesa, Ariz. "It is about whether we are going to be a free people."

By voting for him, Santorum said, Republicans can choose "someone who has a track record of standing up for the foundational pillars of our society: faith and family."

They also would be choosing the candidate with the most conservative views on social issues, which have been the signatures of Santorum's career. Those issues, and the sense that Santorum is the real deal — a leader who isn't afraid to say what might be politically unpopular — have electrified conservative audiences and helped fuel his surge into contention for the Republican presidential nomination.

The question is whether his views could prove too extreme to win a general election campaign, when the electorate is substantially more liberal, on balance, than Santorum.

"That's a considerable danger for him," said Sam Stone, communications director for Arizona GOP congressional candidate Martha McSally, after hearing Santorum speak in Phoenix. "But," he added, "if you don't have the support of your base … the road to the presidency is going to be really rocky."

Santorum has been a national leader in the fight against abortion, which he passionately opposes even in cases of rape or incest. He opposes government funding not only for abortion but for some forms of prenatal testing, such as amniocentesis, which he believes is used to decide whether to abort a child with birth defects. (He and his wife, Karen, have a daughter, Bella, born with a defect known as Trisomy 18, and he speaks emotionally about children who are aborted because they aren't "perfect.")

He has spoken out against contraception, calling it "a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." (He says he has no desire to ban it.) He has attacked President Obama relentlessly over requiring faith-based institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception to their workers, calling it a serious challenge to religious liberty, even in its amended form.

He has been quoted as supporting laws against sodomy.

He fiercely opposes same-sex marriage and the Obama administration's policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and has compared gay sex to "man on dog" sex.

He takes a hard line on immigration.

On some of these views, Santorum is clearly outside the mainstream of American public opinion — in some cases, far outside.

Americans are divided on abortion, but most fall into a middle ground on regulation that is well short of Santorum's hard-line stance. The overwhelming majority of Americans considers sodomy laws and the opposition to contraception to be relics from another era.

However, a poll by the Pew Research Center shows that the public is sharply divided, largely along party lines, on the Obama administration's contraception coverage mandate. And Santorum is not alone in arguing that the public would have been more likely to oppose the rule had it been framed as an issue of religious freedom, not of healthcare.

The public is also deeply divided on same-sex marriage, but a majority approved of Obama's decision to allow gays to serve openly in the military. And while many people share Santorum's views on immigration, a far larger number support a more moderate approach.

Santorum's views on social issues grow out of his faith as a Roman Catholic and his reading of American history. In his standard campaign speech, he talks about how the nation's founders believed they were protecting "God-given rights," which set the country apart from nations where rights were apportioned by rulers.

To Santorum, that means the United States should have a limited government; that government should protect and nurture religious institutions; and that it should protect life, including that of the unborn.

"This is the heart of American exceptionalism," he said in his Phoenix speech. "This is what makes us a great nation ... because we believe in the power of the dignity of every human life."

Santorum's views may be those of a Catholic, but they play well with Protestant evangelicals. At times, he sounds like one.

"I think Santorum comes out of a very traditional Catholic view of these things," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, who has written widely about religion and politics. But, he added, "a lot of the language he uses is this broader language that traditionalists in a lot of different traditions can get behind."

Santorum appears to bridge any gap that remains between conservative Protestants and Catholics by stressing the social dogma they share, primarily opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

"There are more things keeping evangelicals and Catholics together than are dividing them," said Thomas Peters, a conservative Catholic who blogs as the American Papist. He said Santorum's views "absolutely conform with the right wing of American Catholicism."

Can Santorum win over a general electorate with such conservative social views? It depends, said Green.

"On a lot of these cultural issues, the country would appear to be more moderate or more liberal, and in some cases a lot more liberal, than Sen. Santorum," he said. But most liberals wouldn't vote for any Republican, he said, so what matters is Santorum's appeal to those in the middle — who tend to be in the middle culturally as well as politically.

"A lot of swing voters are pro-choice but not really happy about abortion," Green said. "They believe in traditional marriage but don't think it's their business to tell people what to do with their lives.… A lot of these swing voters may not be that close to where Sen. Santorum is, but they're not as far away as the public as a whole."

If the campaign winds up being primarily about the economy, differences over cultural issues will take a back seat anyway, he said.

"I think the senator, if he's the Republican nominee, would face a challenge with swing voters," Green said. "But it's not at all clear to me that he would fail with that challenge."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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