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For Rick Santorum voters, it's character that counts

Suburban mom Judy Dlugosielski is a liberal Republican who favors abortion rights.

Yet as a crucial set of primaries nears, her choice for president is Rick Santorum, who would be the most conservative nominee of a major party in decades and a man who gained national prominence as a warrior against abortion.

Her decision rests on her perception of his character.

"We need to elect the person who's going to do the best for the country. We need to have somebody who brings us back to the basics of home and family," said the 56-year-old mother of a U.S. Marine, who is active in a local military family support group even as she recovers from treatment for cancer.

For voters like Dlugosielski, the choice for president rests not on issues but on intangibles. Likability. Authenticity. The contrast between Santorum's youthful and mostly sunny image and the older and colder persona of Mitt Romney is feeding a titanic struggle as the two head toward Feb. 28 primaries in Michigan and Arizona.

Santorum's message, heavily laced with references to freedom and faith, has won him the backing of evangelical Christians and supporters of the tea party movement. More than Romney's, his voters are staunchly conservative, male, less well-educated and fellow baby boomers, particularly those from the next primary battleground in the Midwest. But their growth has been driven less by demography than by style.

Those who have voted for Santorum, or plan to, say much of the attraction stems from an everyman image — the down-to-earth family guy motivated by unwavering and deeply held convictions — that stands out in a Republican contest in which no significant issue differences separate the top contenders.

Santorum, whose regular traveling aides are his two eldest children, features his family prominently in TV ads. Despite spending 16 years in Congress — and losing badly in a 2006 Senate reelection try — he presents himself as someone who rather reluctantly got back into national politics to fight a massive government overreach in the form of the new federal healthcare law.

One of his most reliable crowd-pleasing lines revolves around his wife, Karen, and their seven children, ages 3 1/2 to 20. "Frankly, the last thing I should be doing is running for president right now," he said to laughter from an overflow audience of 600 on Thursday at a rally in Shelby Township, north of Detroit, organized by the Michigan Faith and Freedom Coalition.

John Cooper, an auto industry electronics consultant from Rochester Hills, Mich., who is unemployed, finds it "very appealing" that Santorum seems to be living out his conservative beliefs.

"I know he's a politician, but his sincerity really comes through," said Cooper, who has an advanced degree from the school of diplomacy at Tufts University, spent much of his working life abroad and speaks Japanese, French, German and passable Spanish. "His values are my values," said the 52-year-old father of two, who grew up in Cleveland as the son of a police officer and a nurse.

Thomas Scharfenberg, 45, of Rochester Hills, a salesman, is supporting Santorum even though "I may not agree with everything he says. But he's straight as an arrow. He's a man of strong conviction." Romney, on the other hand, concerns him. "I like Mitt but he fluctuates a little," he said.

Some have been with Santorum since he was an asterisk in the race; they never dreamed he'd still be in the running.

August Biache, 64, of Washington, Mich., latched onto Santorum when "he was a nobody" and says that he's "amazed" that a candidate without any money to speak of could have made it this far.

"I was always praying for him," said Biache, a lawyer who voted for Romney in the 2008 primary. He was drawn to Santorum, he said, because of their shared conservative beliefs, but also admires his "innate fortitude" as a family man and father.

For all the long-term loyalty, many of Santorum's newest backers have come to him only after exhausting other options. Their perceptions could change as he faces increased scrutiny from rivals — particularly Romney, who has already hammered him as insufficiently conservative and unwilling to cut the size of government.

Georgene Sorenson began supporting Santorum in the last two months. The retired paralegal made a $25 online donation to his campaign after he won the Iowa caucuses. Earlier, she liked Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.

"I would vote for a dog before I vote for Obama," said the 65-year-old from Green Valley, Ariz. Santorum is "so vibrant when he speaks, and his values are so in line with mine. Maybe it's because we're both Catholics."

David Roberts, 73, a retired TV technician from Royal Oak, Mich., sided with Bachmann and Newt Gingrich before Santorum.

Santorum "doesn't seem to have a lot of the problems or baggage that a lot of other candidates have, plus he seems to be on the way up at a good time," Roberts said. Santorum's "moral principles" — mainly on abortion — are "a big thing," he added.

Gingrich's flagging candidacy appears to have provided much of Santorum's recent boost.

Robert Gosselin, a conservative county commissioner in Oakland County, recently took the rare step — legal in Michigan — of visiting the city clerk's office and retrieving the absentee ballot he had marked for Gingrich. Then he submitted a new vote for Santorum.

"Not to take anything away from Mitt Romney, but people just want someone that's a little bit more outspoken when it comes to family values," Gosselin said. "I like Newt, but he's kind of fading, and so I gravitated to Rick Santorum. We need someone who can draw the contrasts with Obama."

Gosselin met Santorum at an Oakland County dinner last week, and told him what he'd done.

"He just nodded and smiled," the Santorum convert said.

paul.west@latimes.com

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