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Primary battle could cost Santorum the war

Far-right stances fuel primary surge but could alienate independents in fall

Pastor Richard Lee (right) prayed with Rick Santorum at a ‘‘God and Country’’ rally in Cumming, Ga., last week. Some mainline Protestant leaders are angered by Santorum’s comment that their churches have ‘‘gone from the world of Christianity.’’

ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION VIA AP

Pastor Richard Lee (right) prayed with Rick Santorum at a ‘‘God and Country’’ rally in Cumming, Ga., last week. Some mainline Protestant leaders are angered by Santorum’s comment that their churches have ‘‘gone from the world of Christianity.’’

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. - Three years before Rick Santorum decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination, he laid out his vision for America. “This is not a political war at all,’’ he said. “This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war.’’

But now, as Santorum is in the political war of his life heading into pivotal primaries on Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, it is his standing as a cultural and religious warrior that could help give him the GOP nomination - but which some observers believe could doom his chances with crucial independents in a general election fight.

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As a result, the higher Santorum climbs in the polls, the more that scrutiny of his social views has intensified with every comment about sex, abortion, contraception, public education, religion, and morality.

In the past week, Santorum has discussed his opposition to federal regulations requiring that insurance companies cover prenatal testing with amniocentesis (he says it leads to more abortions when birth defects are detected); his belief that contraception is “not OK’’ (but says he would not impose his view on others); his belief that federal and state oversight of public education is “anachronistic’’ (although he voted for the federal No Child Left Behind legislation); and, he stood by his comment that President Obama follows a radical “theology’’ (but says he was talking about Obama’s environmental policy, not religion).

All of this follows a new round of attention to a controversial 2008 speech in which Santorum, a devout Catholic, said Satan is destroying the United States and then criticized other denominations, saying that “mainline Protestantism in this country . . . is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.’’

While Santorum’s social and religious values may help him win over conservative party activists in primaries, even some of Santorum’s admirers expressed concerns that Santorum is so expansive or careless in his language that he will turn off millions of independent and moderate voters he would need to win a general election race.

“If he wants to talk about the social issues and cultural issues he needs to try to frame it in a more positive way,’’ said Richard Land, an evangelical leader. Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Liberty Commission, does not endorse candidates but believes Santorum would make a strong Republican nominee.

Some leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, meanwhile, are fuming over Santorum’s accusation that their churches have “gone from the world of Christianity.’’

“It is upsetting and kind of bizarre that a candidate has gone out of his way to question the faith of about a quarter of the US population,’’ said Bonnie Anderson, the president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Speaking as the top elected lay leader of the worldwide church and a member of a Michigan congregation, Anderson said, “People are tired of seeing faith used as a political weapon, and Mr. Santorum might want to ask himself whether he and other politicians are contributing to this problem. I think it is very possible that he is.’’

In taking on mainline Protestant churches, Santorum risks alienating a large group of people who include many general election swing voters. White mainline Protestants make up 18 percent of the US population, and historically African-American Protestant churches account for 7 percent, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evangelicals make up 26 percent, Catholics are 24 percent, and Mormons and Jews are each 1.7 percent, the survey found.

Santorum did not respond to an interview request. Asked on CNN last week about the speech in which he talked of Satan destroying the United States, he said, “I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you’re a person of faith and you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president, we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.’’

Santorum strongly defends his interweaving of religion and politics. In a speech last October at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire, Santorum told the students how angry he became when he read John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech in which he said the separation of church and state was “absolute’’ and that he would not be beholden to the Vatican’s views.

“I had the opportunity to read the speech and I almost threw up,’’ he said. “You should read the speech. In my opinion it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians, the separation of their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.’’

Santorum’s emphasis on religion has paid off in the polls among Republicans. A survey of Republicans by the Pew Research Center, which showed Santorum leading Romney nationally in mid-February 30 percent to 28 percent, found that Santorum was strongest among evangelicals and Catholics, while Mitt Romney was strongest among mainline Protestants.

Romney rarely mentions his Mormon faith, which some conservative Christians consider a cult, and he has had a hard time winning over some Republicans who are troubled by his past support of abortion rights. Newt Gingrich is disliked by some conservatives because he cheated on his first two wives and now is married to his third. Ron Paul focuses on his libertarian beliefs.

Santorum, meanwhile, talks regularly about his Catholicism, his home-schooled children, and his view that the country faces a crisis because many Americans have fallen from their faith. In the 2008 speech to Ave Marie University, a Catholic university in Florida, Santorum laid out the framework of his beliefs. The speech received new attention last week after being featured at several online sites.

Speaking to a largely conservative Catholic audience, Santorum criticized mainline Protestants, saying they succumbed to an attack by Satanic forces. Satan, he said, attacked American academia, cultural institutions, and “the body politic, [which] held up fairly well up until the last couple of decades, but it is falling, too.’’

In the early days of Santorum’s presidential campaign, relatively little attention was paid to his social views because he was so low in most polls. But his social stances were pivotal to his narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses and began to gain more notice as well as controversy. Much of the early debate involved Santorum’s statements about homosexuality. Santorum has said, for example, that he has “a problem with homosexual acts.’’

Then, during a January appearance in Concord, N.H., he challenged a college student who supported gay marriage by equating it with polygamy, saying sarcastically, “So anyone can marry can marry anybody else, so, if that’s the case, then everyone can marry several people.’’ The audience of college students booed him.

Republican leaders have tended to favor Romney. One of the harshest critics of Santorum is Alan Simpson, former senator and Wyoming Republican, who said on CBS-TV’s “Face to Face’’ program last week that Santorum was so “rigid and a homophobic’’ that he feared Santorum would “float us out in the Bering Sea or something. . . . here’s a party that believes in government out of your life, the precious right of privacy, and the right to be left alone. How then can they [have] the hypocrisy of fiddling around in these social issues? We won’t have a prayer.’’

Interviews with Michigan voters found a division of opinion about whether Santorum’s outspokenness on social and religious matters would help him politically.

Paul Zarek, a Republican who attended a Roman Catholic high school near Detroit, said he applauds Santorum for running a campaign driven by faith. But Zarek, 42, remains skeptical about Santorum’s ability to muster a following.

“Every week there’s a new controversy with him,’’ said Zarek. “Last week, it was about contraception. Next week, it’ll be about something else. He’s got very strong views. Maybe it’s about the way he phrases things. And he’s saying things that can be used against him.’’

Mitch Black, a Catholic and the owner of an Irish pub called Dick O’Dow’s in Birmingham, Mich., said he is undecided but he likes Santorum’s steadfast beliefs in contrast to what he called Mitt Romney’s changing positions. “I think he is probably the most electable candidate,’’ Black said of Santorum. “If you listen to what he says, he’s the most consistent.’’

Some voters are looking ahead to November and, as much as they may like Santorum, they worry he might cost the party its chance at beating Obama.

“I like Santorum. I admire his honesty,’’ said Chris McCall, 59, from Highland, Mich., who leans toward Romney. “But I think he trips himself up, and I’m not sure we can have that in November.’’

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish. Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Matt Viser contributed to this report.
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