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Santorum’s social conservatism could be a tough sell for Jews

Rick Santorum, shown speaking to Iowa high school students in West Des Moines on Jan. 3, 2012, is reaching out to pro-Israel donors to boost his campaign following his strong showing in the state's caucuses. (Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rick Santorum’s near-win in Iowa has made him the GOP’s latest “not Romney” to pick up steam, but he may have his work cut out for him in attracting Jewish support.

Pro-Israel insiders say the Santorum campaign is now aggressively reaching out to Jewish givers who helped him when he was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Santorum’s stumbling block, they say, is his hard-line take on social issues like abortion, gay rights and church-state separation — not a huge deal when he was one senator among a hundred but a bigger factor for donors considering presidential contenders.

“The same groups are not going to support you for president as for senator,” a major pro-Israel donor, who contributed to Santorum’s Senate runs, said he told the candidate last summer.

Santorum, long lagging at the bottom of the polls, finished only eight votes behind Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in the Iowa caucuses.

Santorum, 53, is the latest Republican hopeful to be vaulted toward the head of the field by a conservative base that has never been comfortable with Romney. While others have fallen back to earth, some argue that Santorum could be buoyed by his potential appeal to working-class voters and religious conservatives.

Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman and a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has donated the maximum to Santorum’s campaign — $2,500 — and says he’s readying a pitch to fellow pro-Israel givers.

“He can appeal to a lot of independents, he’s got the right economic message,” Kaplan said in an interview.

Santorum has proposed eliminating corporate taxes on domestic manufacturers to lure factories stateside. He has emphasized his roots as the grandson of an Italian immigrant coal miner who left fascist Italy and worked until he was 72.

In his near-victory speech after the Iowa caucuses, Santorum chided his fellow Republicans, urging them to look beyond budget numbers and focus more on jobs.

“I believe in cutting taxes. I believe in balancing budgets. … But I also believe we as Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in our society by just cutting taxes and balancing budgets,” he said.

Santorum also calls for tripling the personal tax deduction per child; freezing spending on Medicaid, food stamps and other social welfare programs; turning Medicare into a voucher program for beneficiaries to buy their own private insurance; and adjusting Social Security eligibility and benefits.

He also has been a longtime supporter of shifting Social Security to personal retirement accounts, though in this campaign cycle he said that this would be too expensive under current economic circumstances.

Kaplan said that Santorum would now need to emphasize his economic and foreign policy messages if he wanted to win Jewish support.

“In terms of social issues, he has strong views, but he needs to also get out what he does for people,” Kaplan said.

During his two terms in the Senate, from 1995 to 2006, Santorum had a positive working relationship with Jewish communal groups in his state, earmarking federal funding for projects they supported, among them the naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, pioneered by the Jewish federations system.

“His office was great in terms of helping to find money for projects,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

It’s a past that other candidates have now turned against him, with earmarks — derided as “pork” — decidedly unpopular among conservatives. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has run anti-Santorum ads that repeat, on a loop, Santorum’s defense of earmarks.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times last week ran front-page stories chronicling Santorum’s profitable post-Senate ties with groups that benefited from his earmarks while he was in Congress.

Schatz, however, said that in her experience Santorum went by the book on appropriations. “You really had to jump through hoops” to get funding for a project, she said. “He did due diligence. You had to prove it was a project worthy of federal funding.”

Santorum was attentive to the Jewish community — and not just in election years. He convened town hall meetings in Jewish community centers on issues such as health care.

“He was very accessible,” Schatz said. “He had a great sense of humor.”

She recalled that even when he encountered angry Jewish critics of his social policies, he responded with grace and did not lose his temper.

Santorum’s rhetoric on such issues, however, also can be polarizing. In a 2003 interview, when asked whether gay people should refrain from having sex, he responded by defending the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws, arguing that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

While Santorum’s penchant for hard-edged talk on social issues often has defined his public image, supporters point to a softer side.

A devout Roman Catholic — albeit one who belonged to the historically Jewish fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi when he was an undergraduate at Penn State — Santorum and his wife, Karen, are the parents of seven children.

On the campaign trail he has moved audiences discussing the loss of an eighth child, Gabriel, who was born premature in 1996 and survived only two hours, and the family’s round-the-clock care for Isabella, his youngest at 3, who was born with Trisomy 18, a disorder that kills most of its victims in their first year of life.

Kaplan said he would work to showcase Santorum’s compassion for the needy. He noted Santorum’s role in shaping President George W. Bush’s massive expansion of funding for AIDS victims in Africa.

“People think Santorum isn’t someone who could be helping those people out, but he was,” he said.

Santorum has stood out from the Republican field with his vigorous opposition to calls from his fellow candidates to slash foreign aid — calls that have been criticized by some supporters of Israel.

Perry proposed that aid allocations for all countries should “start at zero” every year before any appropriations are considered, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has called for a complete end to foreign aid. Romney, for his part, suggested ending all foreign aid for humanitarian purposes — arguing instead that the U.S. should cede that role to China.

During a November debate, Santorum assailed his rivals for “talking about zeroing out foreign aid and humanitarian aid in particular,” warning that such an approach would be self-defeating.

“America is that shining city on the hill. It is the city that comes to the aid of those in trouble in the world,” Santorum said. “We have done more good for America in Africa and in the Third World by the things that we have done, and we have saved money and saved military deployments by wisely spending that money — not on our enemies but on folks who can and will be our friends.”

Perhaps Santorum’s deepest appeal to Jewish backers is his steadfast pro-Israel posture. As a freshman senator in 1996, he helped shape an earlier installment of Iran sanctions legislation. He also has taken a tough line toward the Palestinians, explaining while campaigning in Iowa that the West Bank “is legitimately Israeli country” and that “all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians.”

More pronouncedly than any other candidate, he has been supportive of possibile military action against Iran, even delving into particulars.

“I would say to every foreign scientist that’s going into Iran to help them with their nuclear program, ‘You will be treated as an enemy combatant,’ ” he said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Working with Israel, he added, “We will degrade those facilities through airstrikes and make it very public that we are doing that.”

Yet while his Middle East views may play well with some Jewish voters and donors, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to overcome the hesitance many have regarding his positions on social issues.

“Some of his very militant stands on issues that have to do with choice, with homosexuality — it made some people in the community uncomfortable,” Schatz said.

The hard-edged way in which he expressed his views on such issues helped fell him in 2006, when he lost his Senate re-election bid by 18 points to Democrat Bob Casey, also an opponent of abortion rights.

But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to advocate a hard line in the current election. A Santorum attack ad attacked then-rival Herman Cain for describing abortion in the event of rape as a woman’s choice. The ad quoted Steve Deace, an Iowa radio host, saying that Cain’s position “favors baby murder in cases of rape and incest.”

One Jewish Romney supporter said that Santorum’s stances on social issues should rule him out for consideration not just as a presidential candidate but also a Republican running mate.

“Santorum on the ticket would kill us in Florida,” the Romney backer said.