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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets patrons at a diner in Tilton, N.H. Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (Elise Amendola/Elise Amendola/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets patrons at a diner in Tilton, N.H. Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (Elise Amendola/Elise Amendola/AP)

GOP NOMINIATION

Rick Santorum: A Republican menace or a messiah? Add to ...

When Rick Santorum began his improbable presidential run last June, half of Republican voters had never heard of him. Even after a dozen debates, he was just as unknown.

One group has long been well acquainted with him, however. And it is not the social conservatives behind his stunning tie for first place in this week’s Iowa caucuses.

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Gay rights activists have considered Mr. Santorum a menace since his 2003 outburst against a Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws. They have ensured that, even after he lost his Senate seat in 2006, Mr. Santorum’s name has lived on in infamy.

Thus was born the noun “santorum” – a word whose definition is so unsavoury the ex-senator has been trying to get Google to remove it from its search engine.

But as Mr. Santorum comes under scrutiny as potentially the only candidate able to stop Mitt Romney, he is discovering there is no erasing one’s past in politics or cyberspace.

The sudden attention could take him down or rehabilitate the meaning of his name.

The Republican base still craves a candidate who can beat the “Massachusetts moderate” – as the fast fading Newt Gingrich calls Mr. Romney. Mr. Santorum may be poised to ride a conservative wave, if not to the nomination, perhaps to a place on the GOP ticket.

As unlikely as that seems, it did not stop Carl Toepel, 72, from braving the nippy temperature to hold up a sign reading “Romney/Santorum” at a rally for the ex-senator here on Friday. The overflow crowd forced organizers to move the event outside.

“This is like a Fellini movie,” Mr. Santorum, a boyish 53, quipped as he surveyed the crush of fans, hecklers and reporters before him in the parking lot of a local banquet hall.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Santorum would probably have found it hard to lure more than a dozen or so supporters to an event here. Suddenly, he’s a draw.

“I was telling people about him a long time ago,” crowed Sue Phillips, 80, as she waited for Mr. Santorum. “I do believe he could take it to Obama, tell him what’s what.”

Mr. Santorum is unlikely to give Mr. Romney much trouble in New Hampshire, where evangelical Christians will account for, at best, one-fifth of voters in Tuesday’s GOP primary. But a top-three finish in the Granite State would confirm his momentum.

A bigger test will come on Jan. 21 in South Carolina. Evangelicals make up more than half of GOP primary voters there and two polls on Friday showed Mr. Santorum surging into second behind Mr. Romney in the Palmetto State. He may peak at just the right time.

Then again, he started out as a footnote in the GOP race and could still end up there as his rivals step up their attacks and the news media shine the spotlight his controversial career in the Senate, where he displayed a penchant for inflammatory metaphors and crass cultural warfare.

The son of an Italian immigrant who grew up a staunch Catholic in Pennsylvania coal country, Mr. Santorum became an anti-abortion crusader after the stillbirth of a son in 1990.

It is no exaggeration to say that strengthening the family is the cornerstone of his economic platform. He draws a direct link between the breakdown of the traditional family and spiralling government debt.

“Governments get bigger,” he argues, “when families get weaker.”

In 2005, he wrote It Takes a Family, which served as his rebuttal to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village, her 1996 book on the importance of non-family members on children’s welfare.

But it is his relentless antipathy toward gay rights that truly makes him stand out.

“He is not just someone who is opposed to equality,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “He has made it his life’s work.”

Speaking to college students here on Thursday, he baited a questioner who argued that the right to happiness was enough of a justification to make gay marriage legal.

“If you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people, is that okay too?” Mr. Santorum shot back amid boos from the audience.

His take-no-prisoners approach reassures social conservatives, who consider Mr. Romney wishy-washy on the issues important to them. They have no such doubts about Mr. Santorum, who, with his wife, Karen, home-schools their seven children.

But as the focus shifts to Mr. Santorum’s career in the Senate, where he was a top beneficiary of donations from lobbyists and earned a reputation for pork-barrel politics, he will face a hard time winning over Tea Party Republicans and fiscal conservatives.

The revelation that he earned lucrative director and consulting fees after leaving the Senate from companies that were major donors when he was in office will not help his campaign, either.

His rivals for the nomination are likely preparing attack ads with all the gory details.

Still, Mr. Santorum has already accomplished more than he could have hoped for at the outset of his presidential bid.

Now, at least, everybody knows his name.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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