If Santorum Wins …

What would the race for president look like should Rick Santorum win the Republican nomination?

His candidacy would do a lot to put social issues into play. While he would rev up the base of social conservatives who might be left cold by a Mitt Romney candidacy, President Barack Obama would welcome the distraction from his economic record. He would likely try to bring into the dialogue fringe issues such as contraception, back-alley abortions, stem cell research and others. His insistence on the inclusion of birth control in health insurance policies issued by Catholic institutions is a foretaste of his probable tactics against Santorum, should he win the Republican nomination.

In a sense, Obama would use on Santorum the same tactics Republicans used in the last decade by turning elections into referenda on gay marriage. While any Democrat can move to the left of almost any Republican on social issues, Santorum’s purist record in this area makes it easier for Obama to do so.

On the other hand, Santorum is far less vulnerable than Romney on the issue of flip-flopping. His reputation for stubborn consistency will save him from this accusation. He would also be able to attack Obamacare with a clean record of opposition to individual mandates and without the specter of Romneycare lurking in the background. (Of course, the Supreme Court may remove the entire issue by ruling the mandate unconstitutional before the election.)

The former Pennsylvania Senator will have a hard time dragging the issue back to the economy. While Romney is tailor-made for a campaign about jobs and the recession, the topics are a bit of a reach for Santorum. Even in the primaries, voters largely ignore his program for reviving American manufacturing and back him either because of a dislike for Romney or due to their fervent support of his social agenda.

Santorum also has a 12-year voting record in the Senate that Obama could use against him, picking out votes that make him appear callous and doctrinaire. While Romney will have to defend his record at Bain Capital and in Massachusetts, he has the luxury of never having had to cast votes in Washington on controversial issues.

On a personal level, Santorum’s earnestness, youth, and idealism will be very attractive to voters in November, as it is showing itself to be during the primaries. But unlike Obama, Newt Gingrich and even Romney, Santorum has not proven himself to be a great debater. His surge in the polls comes not so much from any knock-it-out-of-the-park debate performance but rather as a by-product of the exceedingly negative campaign between Romney and Gingrich. The record ugliness of their exchange has wounded both men while leaving Santorum unscathed.

But, of course, there’s a flip side to youth and earnestness: inexperience. Santorum does not have Romney’s track record of having run for president before and of campaigning in the bright spotlight as the frontrunner for all of 2011. Santorum’s record in Pennsylvania does not do much to stoke confidence in his ability to take a punch in the campaign.

And there’s a flip side to his idealism, also: stubbornness. Santorum clung to his defense of the Iraq War throughout his 2006 race for re-election, refusing to flinch even as the war’s popularity took a nosedive. His friends will tell you that he is loyal to a fault and consistent even at the price of political disadvantage. While admirable traits for a friend, they are not necessarily conducive to winning the presidency.

The bottom line: Would Santorum have a good chance to beat Obama? Certainly. The president’s record would make any Republican look good.

Would Romney be the safer bet? Obviously.

Who should you support? Santorum, if you want purity. Romney, if you want to be pragmatic. It doesn’t so much depend on who these two guys are as on who you are.

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