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Rick Santorum: The 'Church' Candidate

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WASHINGTON -- Bathed in the candlelight of a Romanesque Texas church and framed at the altar by golden stained glass, Rick Santorum told a group of Dallas-area pastors Wednesday that he saw no boundary between faith and public life and that he "could not and would not leave my faith at the door" as he sought the presidency.

Then, as if in thanks, the pastors in the Bella Donna Adriatica Chapel in McKinney, Texas, gathered around Santorum in the church's central aisle for a laying-on of hands. "Get a hand on Rick, or get a hand on someone who has a hand on Rick," said the host.

Surrounding him like a pious rugby scrum, they prayed that God would direct the former Pennsylvania senator's steps as he seeks the Republican nomination.

(Watch the church meeting below)

Santorum is the all-but-official GOP "church" candidate at a time when church-state issues are raging. While he has been largely relegated to the background since a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa, Santorum's three-state victory Tuesday night made it clear the Republican base hasn't forgotten that.

To be sure, Santorum isn't merely a religious candidate, praying on the altar of public life. Yesterday he won every county in Missouri, not just ones with evangelicals and conservative Catholics in them. He also won in Minnesota and Colorado, administering what a Santorum aide rightly called "a good ol' fashioned country horse whippin'" to Mitt Romney.

Santorum is passionate about manufacturing, and advertises his working-class heritage as the grandson of a Pittsburgh-area coal miner. Polls show that, with his sweater vests and reluctance to run negative ads (perhaps making a virtue of his lack of funds), he has emerged as the most likeable candidate in the field -- proving once again that politics is a game of comparison.

There were no media entrance or exit polls in any of the three contests Tuesday, but Santorum's victories can't be entirely coincidental in a media environment dominated by three issues roiling evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics -- two groups that drove Santorum's win in Iowa.

The political news these days is not dominated by economics or foreign policy. Instead, the headlines and emotion stem from:

  • the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision -- and then reversal of its decision -- to deny funding to Planned Parenthood
  • the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to invalidate the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in California
  • perhaps most provocatively, the Obama Administration's decision to mandate that church-owned hospitals offer contraceptive services as part of their employees' benefit packages.

Taken together, the three events have provoked pushback from Christian and other religious conservatives, especially but not limited to Catholics. And their indignation is an emotion that politicians, especially Republicans, are racing to exploit from the Capitol to the campaign.

The timing and circumstances were especially good for Santorum. Turnout in the three states was low, which likely helped Santorum because of his ties to passionately motivated evangelical and Catholic voters.

And none of Santorum's three remaining rivals can play the faith role as convincingly as he does: not former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, because he is a Mormon; not Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), because the gold standard is his Holy Grail; and not former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), because his recent conversion to Catholicism came after two adulterous affairs and three marriages. South Carolina evangelicals were willing to overlook that Newtonian history. Others aren't.

Santorum, by contrast, is a lifelong Catholic and former altar boy who home schooled his kids to avoid what he regarded as the secular corrosion of public education. He has made social issues such as abortion, creationism and gay marriage the essence of his legislative and political identity for decades.

"All of the other candidates have the same stands on these issues as Rick does," said Hogan Gidley, Santorum's national communications director. "So why are voters who care about those issues now going for Rick and not for them? Because they like him, they believe him, and they trust him because of his record."

To which the pastors in Texas might say, amen.

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