Rick Santorum’s recent surge has Team Romney on the lookout for attacks to use against him. So far the fusillades they’ve launched against the former Pennsylvania Senator have mostly focused on his well-documented fondness for earmarks while he served in Washington. However, the last few days have exposed another potentially more damaging weakness: Santorum has a history of saying anti-feminist things that go beyond the mainstream. What’s more, he appears to realize this and to be backpedaling as best he’s able.
First, Santorum went on the defensive after he told CNN that women shouldn’t serve in combat roles because “I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved.”
Then, this weekend, he had to explain away a section from his 2005 book It Takes A Family that accuses “radical feminists” of tearing women from away from the home. Here’s the passage, as cited in the New York Times:
“The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.”
The line has dogged Santorum before. He was asked about it in the national press when the book was published and Democrats used it against him in the 2006 Senate race he lost to Sen. Bob Casey (D). The explanation he’s using this time is that he didn’t write the passage; his wife did. As the Times reported, “only his name is on the cover and he does not list her, in his acknowledgements, among those ‘who assisted me in the writing of this book.’”
Then on Meet The Press Sunday, Santorum was put in the less than enviable position of having to swear he doesn’t actually object to women being in the workplace:
Host David Gregory: Let me ask you one more question about women. If you are president of the United States, and women want to work in your administration, do single women without children only need apply? Are you going to respect the decision of women to come work for you if that’s the choice they make, or would they be somehow held by, by radical feminists?
Santorum: Well, as — I think if you go back and look at the people who have worked for me, we’ve had single women, we’ve had married women, we’ve had all sort of folks. We don’t — I don’t, you know, those are decisions , again, I affirm that, that if women want to come into the workplace, great. If they don’t, that’s great. You know, we’re going to look at the best qualified people and there will be plenty of working moms who will be in our administration who will be adding greatly to the conservative cause that I believe in.”
This might be a flap he could just about get away with in the South. But it’s not an ideal issue to be looming as he heads towards rust belt states like Michigan where he needs to reach out to a GOP electorate that’s less socially conservative.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), now host of The War Room on Current TV, told TPM Monday that Santorum’s walking a fine line with female voters in her state by criticizing women who go to work.
Women in Michigan have been working on assembly lines since the industrial revolution, Granholm said, and the idea that they have a choice about whether they should stay home and raise the family or go to work is a “fallacy.”
“It’s often not out of desire but necessity,” she told TPM. “He’s got to be careful about that.”
For the most part, the Romney campaign is being careful, too, when it comes to taking Santorum on over this. But they’re getting their licks in where they can — perhaps telegraphing greater outreach to moderate working women in the less socially-conservative states that make up the next round of voting.
Romney surrogate and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) — who’s had his own problems with past writings about women — called out Santorum Monday over his comments regarding women in combat.
“I like Rick Santorum a lot. I just disagree with any inference that he might have made that somehow women are not capable of serving in the frontlines and serving in combat positions. And I base that in part on my own daughter’s own experience as a platoon leader in Iraq with 25 men working with her,” McDonnell told CNN. He took a simliar swipe at Santorum at CPAC over the weekend, where he gave a speech on the main stage.
A Romney surrogate in Washington state — another more moderate state with an upcoming GOP primary — needled Santorum over the controversial stuff in his book under questioning from TPM Monday.
“I believe Gov. Romney will be the nominee, so I’m not as concerned about what former Sen. Santorum has said,” former Washington GOP Chair Diane Tebelius told TPM on the call. “I will tell you this: I believe that Gov. Romney is a strong supporter of women’s rights and women in the workplace.”
Of course, there is a strong element in the socially conservative GOP that has no problem with either the suggestion that feminists have driven mothers out of the home or the contention that combat is not the place for women. Santorum probably doesn’t risk losing them if his more controversial comments about women become part of the primary fight. But he may find it harder to expand his base and convert his poll momentum into actual votes if he’s forced to keep defending himself from attacks that he’s anti-working woman.
The Santorum campaign did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
David Taintor contributed reporting.