WASHINGTON – Rick Santorum is brash and blunt, and proudly so. But it's a trait that will make it easy for Democrats to use his own words against him if he were to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Far from apologetic, Santorum takes an "I-am-who-I-am" attitude. Lately, though, as he tries to emerge as the conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator has been asking Republican voters to look beyond his verbal missteps.
"I'm a consistent conservative," Santorum often says these days. "I'm not a perfect conservative."
While his latest verbal miscue came as he campaigned in Iowa, his career is paved with them.
National civil rights groups recently thumped Santorum after video surfaced of him discussing Medicaid and food stamps. He appears to say: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
He tried to take it back a few days later, telling CNN in an interview: "I'm pretty confident I didn't say 'black' ... I started to say a word and sort of mumbled it and changed my thought."
Santorum's comments on sex and faith as well as race have led to controversy during his 16 years in the House and Senate and when he was an author, radio talk-show host, think-tank fellow and Fox News commentator.
Santorum once compared homosexuality to bigamy, incest and adultery, provoking a firestorm of protest from gay rights supporters. He also blamed Boston's liberal political culture for the clergy sex abuse scandal that shook its Catholic diocese, drawing a thunderous rebuke from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate floor.
All that, and more, is sure to be resurrected if the GOP chooses Santorum to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.
Santorum nearly defeated Romney in Iowa's caucuses but fared poorly in New Hampshire's primary. He's now barnstorming on friendlier turf in South Carolina, hoping for a come-from-behind victory in its Jan. 21 primary through his outreach to the GOP's statewide evangelical base.
A devout Catholic and a leading voice against gay rights and abortion, Santorum rose to prominence as an unabashed warrior in America's culture wars during his 12 years in the Senate. He lost a bid for re-election in 2006 by a 17-point margin.
Perhaps his most talked-about comment is one that came in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press.
Santorum angered gay rights advocates by saying states should have the right to ban gay sex and by comparing homosexuality to bigamy, incest and adultery. He cited a pending Supreme Court case over a Texas sodomy law and said: "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery."
He went on to say: "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."
Asked about those remarks by CNN recently, Santorum said he did not mean to draw a parallel between homosexuality and the other sexual behaviors he mentioned. "I didn't connect them. I specifically excluded them," he said.
Santorum previously has said his remarks to the AP were in the context of a past Supreme Court ruling on privacy and were not meant as "a statement on individual lifestyles."
It was another issue entirely that earned Santorum the wrath of many Democrats in Massachusetts.
In a July 2002 column for Catholic Online, Santorum wrote that promoting "alternative lifestyles" feeds aberrant behavior, such as priests molesting children.
"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," he wrote. "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."
Massachusetts Democrats were outraged. Romney, then the state's governor, called the remarks unfortunate.
A few years later, Democrats went after Santorum during his 2006 re-election bid for statements in his book "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Book" that they claimed were insensitive to the struggles of two-income families.