In an election about the economy, the culture wars make a comeback

The immortal campaign words from the 1990s, "It's the economy, Stupid," were thought to apply to the campaign season of 2012, too. But recent circumstances have re-ignited the culture wars and help to explain the sudden and unlikely rise of Rick Santorum, a Republican social conservative who was all but written off.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has ridden into a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, according to three recent national polls. His ascendancy largely is the result of four key controversies that have risen with uncanny timing to ignite a fire among evangelicals, Catholics and social conservatives.

They include the decision by the Obama administration, now amended, to require institutions run by the Roman Catholic Church to provide contraception coverage to female workers; the ruling by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that overturns California's law banning gay marriage; the Pentagon's decision to open about 14,000 combat-related positions to women, and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation's decision to withdraw, then restore, grant money to Planned Parenthood.

"This is (Santorum's) bread and butter," says Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. "Rick Santorum couldn't have manufactured this scenario, where he is in a dead heat with Mitt Romney."

The question for Santorum and the Republican Party is whether his recent rise is the beginning of a path to the Republican nomination or rather the apex of a short-lived roller coaster ride.

"There's no question that social issues are at the top of people's minds, but the people that are most concerned about social issues were already going to vote in this election, and they had already decided," Gonzales said. "That's why I still think economy, more moderate voters, swing voters in the middle, are going to be that deciding factor."

For all that Santorum has done to inspire social conservatives, his rise has also had the opposite effect of energizing President Obama's liberal base.

Take, for example, Tuesdays remarks by a group of Democratic senators determined to defeat a Republican amendment that would that would overturn the Obama mandate that requires health insurers to provide contraceptive coverage.

"We are debating another attack on women's health care fueled purely by politics," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "Taking the lead from their party's surging presidential candidate Rick Santorum, this amendment seeks to change debate in D.C. from growing the economy and growing jobs to fighting culture wars."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey put it more bluntly: "The GOP option gives women one option -- barefoot and pregnant."

Indeed, Gonzales of the Rothenberg report suggests that Santorum's social conservatism won't sell well among the huge pool of independent voters who've become disenchanted with President Obama.

"If Republicans are painted as the party that is most concerned about social issues, and that's their primary focus, they're going to get destroyed with independent and moderate voters who will decide the election in swing states," he said.

Some analysts have suggested the new focus on social issues, rather than economic ones, has also paralleled the release of economic data showing slight improvement in the economy.

"How people feel about the economy is more important than the actual state of the economy," Gonzales said. "They have to believe things are getting better and not just get bombarded with economic numbers."