"If he's not on his social crusade, he's a really dangerous candidate," says a well-connected Democratic strategist of Rick Santorum. "When he talks about the importance of manufacturing in America, he's talking straight to Clinton Democrats. But when he talks about states being able to outlaw contraception, he goes over the edge and he's too far gone."
There are reports the Obama campaign, long focused on Mitt Romney, is beginning to prepare for a face-off with Santorum, just in case the former Pennsylvania senator captures the Republican nomination. The conventional wisdom among both Democrats and Republicans is that Obama would seek to tear Santorum limb-from-limb with attacks on his positions on abortion, contraception, and, now, prenatal testing. The well-connected Democrat doesn't see it quite that way. "That's really kind of dangerous," he says. "The president is already on thin ice when it comes to faith. The risk that you run is that you somehow suggest that being a Catholic is extreme." Rather than "eviscerate" Santorum, the Democrat suggests, "Just give him the floor -- yield your time. Give him the floor to let him expound, and then make him into someone who's outside the mainstream."
In this Democrat's view, Santorum did plenty of expounding in the last few days when he outlined his opposition to government mandates on free prenatal testing, particularly amniocentesis, in insurance policies. On the campaign trail in Ohio Saturday, Santorum said, "Free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society." Asked about his statement during an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday morning, Santorum held his ground. "The bottom line is that a lot of prenatal tests are done to identify deformities in utero and the customary procedure is to encourage abortions," he said. "This is what goes on in medical rooms around the country. And yes, prenatal testing, amniocentesis does, in fact, result more often than not in this country in abortions."
Santorum has already said he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Add to that his new statements on prenatal testing and you have, to Democratic ears, the sound of a candidate hurting himself. "Being pro-life is one thing," says the Democrat. "People can get that. But taking it to the incest and rape extreme, or saying that health insurance shouldn't cover amniocentesis -- that makes people say, 'Wow, he's not one of these Republicans who is pro-life but is not going to do anything, he's one of those Republicans who is pro-life and will try to do everything.' He's not one of those check-the-box Republicans. He's somebody who feels it deeply."
In the opinion of this Democrat, Santorum has misunderstood why he has surged ahead of Mitt Romney in recent days. "He was beating Romney because he was the conservative alternative, not because he was the social conservative alternative," the Democrat says. "The deeper in he wades, the more he is going to have to walk it back in order to be in a position where he can actually win the presidency. His strength as an alternative has nothing to do with social policy."
In his first surge, in the last days of Iowa caucus campaigning, Santorum shot into the lead on the strength of a platform that featured appealing positions on jobs, on taxes, on national defense, as well as the social positions for which he is well known. Alone among Republicans, Santorum spoke at length about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the problems of American workers who don't have college degrees. ("The best speech he ever gave was the speech he gave in Iowa on caucus night," says the Democrat.) Those positions, along with his dogged determination on the stump, caused many Republicans to give him a serious look.
Now, leading in the polls both nationally and in Michigan, which holds a key primary February 28, Santorum knows that his opponents, both in the Republican race and Democrats, will seek to provoke him into controversial statements on social issues. And yet in the last few days, he has been unable to steer the political conversation back to the topics that work best with voters. If he can't re-take control of that conversation, he could find himself in serious trouble.