Republicans are staring down the increasingly real possibility that Rick Santorum could snatch the presidential nomination away from Mitt Romney and with it any idea that they could mount serious opposition to President Obama in the fall.
As a result, many have started to hit the panic button, and they’re doing so in a way you probably wouldn’t have expected from the GOP, which still counts evangelicals among its strongest and most reliable base vote. Nevertheless, the freakout is evident from the Romney-allied Drudge Report homepage right through to radio host Laura Ingraham’s national airwaves.
Rick Santorum, conservatives and his opponents started to say Tuesday, is just too dang extreme.
The key bullets from Tuesday, when the story really started to emerge:
• The Drudge Report’s powerful homepage banner spent a full day blasting out a 2008 Santorum speech at Ave Maria University in Florida in which the former Pennsylvania Senator told the crowd that Satan is trying to destroy the US. Drudge sold the story as “developing”, but Right Wing Watch had pretty much the whole thing reported last week.
Drudge is generally seen as a friendly outlet for Romney, and the timing of the less-than-flattering story — coming just a week before the primaries in Arizona and Michigan — was dead-on for someone hoping to derail Santorum’s momentum.
Ed Kilgore noted that Drudge wasn’t the only generally pro-Romney conservative to call out Santorum for extremism Tuesday. Jennifer Rubin took Santorum to task for his comments about women in combat, women working outside the home and this weekend’s meltdown over Obama’s “theology”:
“In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion.”
• But it wasn’t just people with generally nice things to say about Romney who were raising the concern that Santorum may just be too far out there for the modern GOP. Conservative radio talker Laura Ingraham hosted Newt Gingrich on her show Tuesday, and spent much of the eight minute interview berating Santorum for causing the conversation to veer away from economic issues in favor of discussions of pre-natal testing.
“You know, we have candidates out on the campaign trail who are making comments that do give an opening to the media so that they can cover the issues that don’t matter and refrain from covering the issues of, let’s say, high gas prices and so forth,” Ingraham fumed before playing a clip of Santorum talking pre-natal tests on Face The Nation. “If we’re debating about why Amniocentesis is used or not, then we get ourselves into these pickles, and then that becomes the news story,” rather than important issues like what she characterized as Obama’s “lies” about how much land he’s opened up to offshore drilling.
Gingrich was more than willing to oblige her line of reasoning.
“Why would we get off on a fight over something where the very language sounds good [to the left]? If you said to somebody, do you think women should have prenatal testing, I’ll bet you it’s a 90-5 [yes] of course,” Gingrich said. He added that he understood Santorum’s “logic” on the pre-natal care stuff, but was clear in warning the GOP against following Santorum any further. Santorum is putting the entire GOP in danger with his focus on extreme social conservatism, Gingrich said.
“We just have to be smart, we have to learn to campaign on the issues that are to our advantage and not allow the news media to get off into these ambushes that have no possible use except to weaken the Republican Party,” Gingrich said.
• The case against Santorum’s extremism was made to the Republican intellectuals as well. Former Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administration official Peter Wehner issued a stern warning in the pages of Commentary.
“A wise observer told me years ago that for a politician to be seen as the aggressor in the culture wars is the quickest way to lose them,” the longtime veteran of conservative politics wrote. “That is something Rick Santorum should bear in mind as this race moves forward.”
Santorum has been a social issue firebrand for years. It was his thing when he was a Senator, and it’s been his thing as a presidential candidate. His campaign told TPM they didn’t see anything new in the emerging warnings coming at them Tuesday.
“It’s kind of laughable they focus on the five percent of the speech that deals with social issues,” Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley said. “The difference between him and the other candidates is he actually has a record of getting things done on social issues.”
Gidley recognized that Santorum’s frankness on social issues can create headlines, but he said they’re in no danger of derailing the campaign.
“Here’s the thing, Rick answers the question. You could argue whether he should or shouldn’t,” Gidley said of the pre-natal talk that so riled up Ingraham, “but I think people appreciate he’s willing to stand in the fire take the heat and answer, and not slip out with some weaselly dodge about how this is good for Massachusetts but not for everyone else.”