Santorum pushes social agenda, stokes GOP fear

STEVE PEOPLES Associated Press Published:

BLUE ASH, Ohio (AP) -- Rick Santorum sees an America in need of more than economic recovery.

Campaigning across Ohio this weekend, the former Republican senator is calling for fewer children born out of wedlock and fewer single-parent families. He says that communities across Ohio and elsewhere where mothers raise children have less freedom than communities where two-parent families are the norm.

"You go to the neighborhoods in Cincinnati where there are no dads, where the churches have bailed out, where the community organizations don't exist, and what do you find? Government everywhere. Do you find freedom?" he asked voters in this Cincinnati suburb Saturday. "Not even the churches want to locate there because of the problems that are confronted with a society that has allowed the family to break down, morality and freedom to break down."

The comments underscore the former Pennsylvania senator's commitment to social issues, which helped define his 16-year congressional career and distinguish his candidacy from that of rival Mitt Romney. Despite a pro-choice past, Romney is now just as socially conservative as his opponent on paper, but the former Massachusetts governor is almost singularly focused on the economy while campaigning.

By contrast, Santorum's views on morality sometimes overshadow his prescriptions for the nation's economy. And some Republicans -- even among the hundreds waving signs at Santorum's Blue Ash rally Saturday morning -- fear he's gone too far.

"He needs to start talking more about the economy and get off the social issues, because I don't think that's what's going to make him president. The economy is going to make him president," said Joan Conradi, a 50-year-old nurse from nearby Mount Healthy, who was holding a "Santorum for President" sign.

Santorum did discuss his plans to improve the nation's manufacturing sector, highlighting his "Made in America" plan that would reduce corporate income taxes on manufacturing from 35 percent to zero. But he returned repeatedly to social issues during the half hour speech, as he did the night before during a speech outside Cleveland.

"We can cut government; we can grow the economy. But unless the basic building blocks of our society are strong, then we will not be able to sustain it," Santorum said.

He campaigned Saturday alongside Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, who offered Santorum an indirect endorsement.

"I have seen Rick, who I've worked with in Washington for a number of years, never back away from defending the American family," Perkins said at the Blue Ash rally. "We've got to elect a candidate who understands the connection between our economy and our family."

Santorum did not say specifically how the federal government could address family values. He recently released a tax plan he plans to implement in his first 100 days that would triple the personal deduction for children and eliminate the marriage tax penalty throughout the tax code.

On Saturday, however, he simply called for a national conversation of the nation's top minds to determine how to "reconnect fathers with children" and bring "mothers and fathers together." And he promised not to shy away from talk about God while campaigning.

Another audience member, 48-year-old Kurt Daum, said that he agrees with Santorum's positions. But he isn't sure they'll resonate with the broader electorate in a general election matchup against President Barack Obama.

"I'm worried a candidate like this may polarize too much," said Daum, who was wearing a Santorum sticker on his shirt, but said he hadn't determined whom to vote for Tuesday. "I agree with what he has to say there, but when we get to the general population, how much are they going to agree. And can he beat Obama? That's what it comes down to."