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Will US Republicans put faith in Rick Santorum?

The former Pennsylvania senator leans far right at home and abroad, and while Mitt Romney, the favourite, has struggled in recent primaries, Rick Santorum continues to build support.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator, has emerged as Mitt Romney's main rival in the race to become the US Republican presidential candidate.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator, has emerged as Mitt Romney's main rival in the race to become the US Republican presidential candidate.

WASHINGTON // Rick Santorum, a former two-term US senator from Pennsylvania, has emerged as a viable threat to snatch the Republican's Party's presidential nomination from Mitt Romney.

Whether the 53-year-old lawyer can sustain a lead of two percentage-points, according to the results of two polls on Tuesday, remains to be seen. But his rapid rise after three successive primary victories in February has made him Mr Romney's main challenger - ahead of Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the US House of Representatives.

Like Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum is a social conservative and a foreign-policy hawk who argues that the US is facing existential threats from radical Islamists, North Korea and Venezuela.

Mr Santorum says his candidacy was in part inspired by his his fears over US national security. Barack Obama, the US president, did not take such threats seriously, Mr Santorum wrote in 2010, when he first considering a presidential run.

The US, he wrote in a letter to supporters of America's Foundation, his political action committee, needs a president that will "stand up for our national security".

It is a theme he has developed throughout his candidacy. During a speech in late October in Pennsylvania, he elaborated.

"We will have to face this threat because our enemies are fully committed to our destruction. They will not stop until they destroy us or we destroy them."

Mr Santorum is not shy of sounding alarmist. He has identified Iran as the prime threat to the US and in a January debate in New Hampshire, he called the country's leaders "evil" and characterised its regime as a "mullah-tocracy".

He has said he would support airstrikes on Iran to stop the country obtaining nuclear weapons, a scenario, he warned an audience last Friday, that meant, "you will not be safe, not even here in Missouri".

Mr Santorum is also a firm supporter of Israel, to the extent that he has contradicted basic tenets of the US-sponsored peace process. The occupied West Bank, he said while campaigning in Iowa in November, is "legitimately Israeli country" on which Israeli settlement building should therefore not be considered controversial.

He is a co-sponsor of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which stipulates that the city be recognised as the "undivided" capital of Israel, and like Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum has vowed to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem once in office.

Unlike Mr Gingrich, however, Mr Santorum has little personal baggage. Married 22 years to Karen Garver, the couple have eight children, and Mr Santorum has not had any problems in portraying himself as a traditional family man.

And while his positions on social issues, particularly his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, have seen the devout Roman Catholic lampooned on the US Left, they have played well with the religious hardcore of the Republican Party, particularly evangelical Christians.

An important voting bloc in the Republican Party, the evangelicals are also attracted to Mr Santorum's beliefs that the theory of evolution is controversial and man-made climate change is "junk science".

By contrast, Mr Romney, a one-time supporter of the right to abortion, has never been able to appeal to right wing of the party, which also never warmed to Mr Gingrich and his serial adultery.

But Mr Santorum's staunch conservatism also makes him a problematic candidate in a general election where unguarded statements on social issues are likely to come back to haunt him.

He argued, for instance, that a recent decision by the Pentagon to ease restrictions on women in frontline combat could put missions in jeopardy because "other kinds of emotions are involved".

On Friday, Mr Santorum, who has never served in the military, was forced to defend that statement. What he meant, he told ABC news in an interview, was that "culturally" American men are focused on helping women.

"So my concern is that being in combat in that situation, instead of being focused on the mission, they might be more concerned about protecting a woman in a vulnerable position," he said.

Such statements are difficult to spin to a wider audience outside the conservative fringes of the Republican Party, and it is Mr Santorum's social positions rather than his foreign-policy bluster that are likely to cause Republicans to hesitate as they consider who is best suited to challenge Mr Obama in November.

Nevertheless, said Chris Wilson, a Washington-based Republican pollster, Mr Santorum has shown remarkable resilience. And that has paid off as he now turns his attention to wresting Michigan from Mr Romney in the next primary on February 28.

The key however, said Mr Wilson, will be Super Tuesday on March 6 when 10 states vote and 391 delegates out of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination are at stake.

Should all four remaining candidates - Ron Paul, the veteran Texas congressman, rounds out the field - emerge with a significant number of delegates, Mr Wilson said the race - unusually - will likely go all the way to the Republican National Convention in Florida in August.

okarmi@thenational.ae