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Michigan primary: Why GOP evangelicals like Catholic Rick Santorum (+video)

In the tight Michigan primary race, Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, leads among Republican evangelicals. Some polls show MItt Romney, a Mormon, leading among Catholics. Battle lines of the culture war aren't what they used to be.

By Staff writer / February 27, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Livonia Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Monday, Feb. 27, in Livonia, Mich.

Eric Gay/AP

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Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, is the top choice of evangelicals in Michigan, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is favored by Michigan Catholics in some polls.

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What’s up with that?

The answer springs foremost from Mr. Santorum’s brand of Catholicism – deeply conservative, and similar to evangelicalism in its approach to social issues (though theologically different). Many voters, in fact, mistake Santorum for a conservative evangelical. His children are home-schooled, and he vocally opposes abortion and gay rights. He also holds a traditionalist view of women’s role in society.

In the latest Mitchell/Rosetta Stone poll of Michigan Republican primary voters, taken Feb. 26, Santorum leads Mr. Romney by 2 percentage points. But among evangelical GOP voters, Santorum is way ahead of Romney, 47 percent to 28 percent. Just six days earlier, Romney trailed Santorum among evangelicals by just 11 points, 35 percent to 24 percent.

Santorum gained by focusing on his social conservatism, and built up his biggest lead yet among evangelicals, who represent 52 percent of the Michigan GOP electorate, says Steve Mitchell, president of the Republican firm Mitchell Research & Communications of East Lansing, Mich., and co-author of the poll.

“Romney was able to turn the tide by hammering Santorum on fiscal issues, calling him a big spender and earmarker,” says Mr. Mitchell. “Over the weekend, Santorum hit very hard on social issues. Romney has chosen not to fight on those issues, because he can’t go as far to the right as Santorum.”

Romney avoids discussion of his faith, as Mormonism is viewed as a cult by some Americans. He also shifted to the right on social issues before his presidential run in 2008, and among some Republicans, his new-found conservatism will always be suspect.

Santorum raised eyebrows last weekend by lashing out at the late President John Kennedy and his landmark speech in 1960 on the separation of church and state. Santorum attacked the Kennedy speech – and then got a little graphic. The speech made him want to “throw up,” he said.

“The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country,” Santorum said Sunday on ABC’s "This Week."

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