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Can Conservative Backlash Sustain Santorum?

Can Conservative Backlash Sustain Santorum?

“It’s sort of the optimistic spirit of America but sometimes, sometimes it’s not okay. It’s going to be harder for this generation to figure this out. There’s no cataclysmic event. It’s going to be hard. You understand it — you’re here. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t get it.”

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum campaigning at the First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga. comparing the threats to America today to those posed by the Nazi regime and the Japanese empire in 1940 and 1941.

For a conservative Republican candidate, especially social conservatives, there’s nothing like being demonized by the left to boost poll numbers.

The most famous recent instance was in 2008 when liberals went bananas about John McCain selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. The left side of the mainstream press became deranged in a matter of mere hours. That did more to make Palin an instant heroine to conservatives than anything she could have said or done herself.

Rick Santorum may now be benefiting from a Palin Effect of his own.

With eight days until the make-or-break Michigan and Arizona primaries, Santorum is in an escalating rhetorical war not with his rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, but the Obama campaign, liberal pundits and the establishment press.

Santorum shot to the top of the pack in the Republican field with a second surge that began about two weeks ago. Santorum broke into contention following his surprise win in the Iowa caucus straw polls on Jan. 3, but didn’t start his rocket ride until the beginning of this month.

The keys to the second surge were, first and foremost, the collapse of Gingrich in Florida. Had Gingrich been able to wring some momentum out of his South Carolina bid for the contest 10 days later, there wouldn’t have been any opening for Santorum. But Gingrich got cocky after South Carolina and took a tumble as voters reconsidered the idea of having a nominee as complicated as the former speaker.

But Gingrich, and the doubts about his general-election viability, only provided the opportunity for Santorum. The means for his rise was provided by the political mistake of another presidential candidate: Barack Obama. The Obama decision to require -- with new powers granted to the executive branch under his 2010 health law -- that religious institutions pay for pills and procedures antithetical to their beliefs, revived the culture wars in a wholly unexpected way. That was like rocket fuel for Santorum’s rise.

(Whether there was deliberate mischief here by Obama in trying to roil the Republican race or if it was simply Democrat dogma, it was a mistake that will haunt Obama until the end of this election cycle. Tin ear. If there was mischief involved, only time will tell whether it was worth the damage Obama did to himself.)

Santorum now had a real-time example of the war on religion that he has been talking about for many years, and the affront was to his own orthodox Catholicism.

At the same time, Santorum, who has been the most consistent hawk in the Republican field, seemed to be proven right about his warning concerning the threat from Iran and radical Islam.

A debate over birth control and renewed hostilities with Iran? That’s a Santorum sweet spot.

Mostly sidelined in an election that was focused on debt, taxes and spending, Santorum found new relevance at the beginning of the month. And just as it seemed conservative Republicans were ready to capitulate to Romney following Gingrich’s stumbles and his own wins in Florida and Nevada, Santorum got his second look.

And as Republicans have been looking, they’ve seen liberals going bananas again. Re-circulated videos of Santorum saying contraceptive use was bad for America, that mainline protestant churches are “gone from the world of Christianity” and other hard-line stances have further inflamed the left.

The joke by Santorum’s billionaire Super PAC backer about the cheapest birth control being girls keeping their knees together drove the left into new ecstasies of outrage. Those few on the Blue Team who didn’t already detest Santorum from his years as a family-values, Bush loyalist or had forgotten their old hatreds were quickly brought up to speed.

Political pugilist Santorum did not back down. Far from it. His view, long expressed, is that there is a spiritual battle between good and evil being waged for the souls and minds of Americans. If one believes the Devil is at the door, it would hardly do to back down.

Santorum has punched back, referring to the environmentalist, anti-global-warming dogma of the Obama administration and the left as a “phony theology.” He said that insurance regulations should not require coverage of pre-natal testing because it encourages parents to consider elective abortions. He has continued to chide Obama for being soft on Iran.

He tied it all together in a speech at a church in Cumming, Ga. on Saturday where he compared the scope of the threats faced by America on all sides were like those looming in 1941 and said that his audience obviously agreed because they had come – some 2,000 of them – to hear his message.

These new stances will spur yet more liberal outrage and more Santorum counterpunches. For socially conservative Republicans and those who feel that foreign affairs have gotten short shrift in the post-Bush era, these battles reinforce the things they like best about Santorum: his constancy as a social conservative and a hawk.

The question now is about timing.

We saw the Palin Effect with Newt Gingrich in South Carolina where the media overreach concerning the recycled allegations from Gingrich’s second wife prompted a backlash against the double standard of the establishment press that launched Gingrich to a big win. When CNN’s John King served that meatball up to Gingrich just three days away from the Palmetto State primary, the timing was perfect.

When the outrage wore off, though, voters considered it in the harsher light of day and many decided it was too risky to have a Republican with character issues running against family man Obama.

If the conservative backlash helps Santorum get his first primary win in Michigan on Feb. 28, he may get the money, infrastructure and, most important, plausibility, that could keep him in the GOP race until the last elections in June. Many conservatives agree with Santorum that the moment is very grave for America and are personally offended when they see him being upbraided for it.

But the danger for Santorum is that his peak may have come too soon. Will eight days of discussions about Santorum’s views and past positions continue to stoke the fires of indignity on the right? If Democrats really go off the deep end, maybe so.

But an eight-day war of words is hard to maintain. If even voters who agree with Santorum about the nature and the scope of the threat to the nation are forced to think too much about Santorum’s liabilities as a general election candidate, there may be a flight to the less risky course Romney purports to offer.


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.