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Anti-spending Discourse and Iran Criticisms Propel Santorum

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
February 28, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Rick Santorum's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, once regarded as a marginal long-shot, has surprisingly caught fire among Republican primary voters. Who is Santorum and why is he now running neck and neck with Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and top choice of the Republican political and financial establishment?

Rick Santorum is an ex-senator from the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania. First elected in 1994 to the United States Senate at the age of 36, he served two six-year terms, distinguishing himself for his antipathy for the mullahs in Iran—an early proponent of regime change policies there—and for his opposition to abortion and contraception.

Santorum is a Catholic, but in the evangelical mode: he proselytizes on and off the stump about his belief that only heterosexual families merit legitimacy in God's (and his) eyes; that sexual activity is only for the purpose of procreation; that "radical feminism," i.e. women in the workplace, destroys families; and that love between gay men or lesbian women threatens American society. Well, before he entered the campaign, some techno-savvy gay rights activists successfully programmed a Google search of the phrase "Rick Santorum" to turn up a number of cites intended to expose his bigotry. Santorum would say that the media has made too much of his views on social issues and that in the White House he would not use government programs to promote these views. The next president of the United States may well appoint two new members of the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of laws related to social policy. Democrats are betting that the prospect that a President Santorum's religious and social beliefs might guide his court appointments guarantees women and gay voters in a general election are unlikely to put much stock in his reassurances.

In foreign policy, Santorum has a less developed world view, but it seems to focus largely on threats to the United States. In 2001, while still in the Senate, and against the objections of the George W. Bush administration, he penned a bill allocating $100 million to support Iranian "democracy" activists—most living outside of Iran. He now claims the mantle of clairvoyance, crediting himself with seeing Iran as a nuclear threat before anyone else in Washington took it seriously. He has argued that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, and warned that Iran and Hezbollah, in consort with Venezuela, threaten Latin American (and thus United States) security. In this week's debate in Arizona, he ridiculed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for suggesting that assessments of Iranian actions must assume Iran is a rational actor.

Santorum's extremism comes in a confusing package. He is handsome, well-spoken, and, surrounded by his wife and numerous children, appears sincere about his beliefs. He has a populist appeal among white, blue-collar voters. His anti-government spending ethos is consistent with that of his rival candidates, despite the last Republican congress and President's stunning spending spree and overall responsibility for planting the seeds of today's financial and economic crisis. And he has a youthful energy that contrasts starkly with Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and his principal rival, Mitt Romney.

Before the Arizona debate, media speculation and opinion polls showed Santorum closing on or even speeding past Romney—spreading panic in the Republican establishment that Romney risked a loss even in this week's primary in Michigan, the state where his father was governor. Santorum's rather choppy and defensive performance, however, gave Romney a boost with the media, who are now back in his corner, if only to extend the race well into the summer when the Republican National Convention meets to definitively choose the presidential nominee. As satisfying as it would be to explain Santorum's surge as a product of media fascination and speculation, the best explanation may well lay not in his radical social or foreign policy views, but in the uninspiring candidacy, contradictory policy views, and overall personal aloofness of Mitt Romney himself.

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