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Santorum rise draws Romney closer to U.S. culture wars

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 6 Jan 2012 10:59 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Santorum emphasizes Christian faith in White House bid

* Romney has emphasized job creation, business experience

* Some conservatives uneasy with Romney's Mormon faith

By Ros Krasny and Patricia Zengerle

MANCHESTER, N.H./WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The sudden rise of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who has emphasized his Christian faith on the campaign trail, is threatening to draw front-runner Mitt Romney into difficult territory - the U.S. culture wars.

Romney has talked about job creation on a daily basis, bashed Democratic President Barack Obama relentlessly, and cast himself as an experienced businessman who can fix the economy since launching his second bid for the White House in June.

He has steered far away from divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage, which have the potential to raise uncomfortable questions about his apparent shifts in position since first running for public office in the mid-1990s and when serving as governor of Massachusetts.

The emergence of former U.S. senator Santorum this month as a conservative contender in the race for the Republican presidential nomination to face Obama in the Nov. 6 election, may bring social topics to the forefront.

Romney, the favorite candidate of establishment Republicans, is seen as having the best chance of defeating Obama.

He must overcome the discomfort of some conservative voters, particularly evangelical Christians, with his Mormon religion. For example, prominent evangelical Christian pastor Robert Jeffress, while praising Romney rival Rick Perry in October as "a committed follower of Christ," described Mormonism as a cult.

Santorum, a Roman Catholic and father of seven, has routinely emphasized his home-schooled children and opposition to gay marriage. The strategy paid off, as he vaulted from the back of the Republican pack at just the right time.

Despite a narrow win in Iowa's caucuses on Tuesday and a strong lead in polls ahead of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Romney has struggled to win the support of more than about 25 percent of Republicans in national polls as he has failed to win over religious conservatives.

RELIABLE VOTING BLOC

Polls show that Christian conservatives are the Republican Party's most reliable voting bloc. A Public Religion Research Institute survey in September showed that three-quarters of the Tea Party movement, a driving force within the Republican Party, describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

Romney skeptics complain about the state healthcare law he pushed through in Massachusetts - some call it "Romneycare" - and think he is too moderate on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Romney promised to push for gay rights and supported abortion rights when he was running for office in Massachusetts, but now opposes abortion and gay marriage and says he opposes allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

Facing constant criticism from Democrats as a "flip-flopper" without a political core, Romney also has been bashed by rival Republicans as having shifted his positions on social issues.

"Here's a Massachusetts moderate who has tax-paying abortions in Romneycare, puts Planned Parenthood in Romneycare, raises hundreds of millions of taxes on businesses, appoints liberal judges to appease Democrats, and wants the rest of us to believe somehow he's magically a conservative," said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives who also is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum captured a surprising 25 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday, finishing second to Romney by just 8 votes. It was the first contest in the state-by-state battle for the party's nomination.

The buzz created by that result has helped push him upward in opinion polls in other early voting states.

Throughout his political career - which many thought ended in 2006 with a shattering 18 percentage point defeat in his Senate re-election bid in Pennsylvania - many of Santorum's strongest supporters come from the anti-abortion movement.

"They've been instrumental in many of his campaigns, going out and doing the legwork, the volunteer work," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, who has followed Santorum for 30 years.

Some political pundits see Santorum as just the latest in a series of candidates touted as an alternative to Romney. The difference now is that votes are actually being cast in the race to determine the Republican nominee.

New Hampshire votes on Jan. 10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan 31.

In South Carolina, as in Iowa, about 60 percent of Republicans identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Among that demographic in Iowa this week, Santorum finished first, with 32 percent support and Romney was at 14 percent, the Pew Forum on Religion and Republic life said.

A preview of what Romney could face in primaries in Southern states was contained in a JZ Analytics poll on Wednesday. The survey of about 500 likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire showed Santorum had outsized support among those who attend church weekly or more.

In contrast to Romney, vocal opposition to abortion rights, homosexuality and other "family values" issues have been a theme of Santorum's political career.

Santorum has been challenged for comments such as likening same-sex relationships to bestiality and saying states should be allowed to ban birth control. In Concord, New Hampshire, on Thursday, he was booed after appearing to compare gay marriage to polygamy and saying children of same-sex couples were being "harmed."

Some in the audience wondered if the polygamy reference was a coded reference to Romney's Mormonism. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in Tilton, New Hampshire, and Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina)

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