Is Rick Santorum helped or hurt when he talks morality?

Rick Santorum says President Obama has “a world view that elevates the Earth above man." Theology-tinged rhetoric may appeal to part of the Republican base, but it could hurt him in a general election.

Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop at the Christ Redeemer Church, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, in Cumming, Ga.

Rick Santorum said on Sunday that President Obama has a “phony ideal” in regards to mankind’s relationship with Earth's resources.

Man is not here to serve the Earth, as “radical environmentalists” seem to believe said Santorum on “Face the Nation” on CBS. It’s the other way around – the Earth is here to provide man with resources which he needs to use wisely.

The GOP presidential aspirant added that he’s not suggesting Obama is not a Christian. He’s saying that Obama has “a world view that elevates the Earth above man”, something that in the end is just an attempt to “centralize power and to give more power to the government.”

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Santorum then said he’s skeptical that mankind’s actions are changing the world’s climate. But let’s leave aside the scientific and theological implications here, and just consider the political implications of this kind of discussion. Is Rick Santorum helped or hurt when he talks about morality in such direct terms?

We ask this question because some conservatives think it’s a big problem for him. “Is Santorum the Sharron Angle of 2012?” asked the Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin on Sunday.

Sharron Angle was the Tea Party favorite who won the Republican nomination for Senate in 2010, if you’ve forgotten. She lost to Majority Leader Harry Reid after she got tangled up trying to explain her moralistic remarks. Ms. Rubin believes that Santorum risks that same fate.

“Santorum’s views and persona have limited appeal in a general election,” Rubin writes.

Of course, not everybody on the right agrees with this. Some say that Santorum is just responding to similar talk from Obama, who uses theology-tinged arguments in support of his economic policies.

The conservative blogger Ed Morrissey wrote Sunday that at the recent Capital prayer breakfast Obama, when discussing his proposal to raise taxes on upper income taxpayers, said “for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required’.”

On Hot Air Morrissey added that “normally I would advise presidential candidates to avoid getting caught in arguments over the relative merits of the faith of their opponents.... In this case, though, Rick Santorum didn’t start that fight.”

Whether he started the fight or not, it might weigh to his disadvantage, concludes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog. If the election focuses on economic issues, it’s possible that Santorum is almost as electable as Mitt Romney, Silver points out. Santorum’s blue-collar personal background and populist economic proposals are a better fit for the voter-rich swing states of the upper Midwest, such as Ohio, than Romney’s stiff corporate CEO persona.

But if economic recovery seems to be taking hold, and the campaign turns to focus more on social issues, than Santorum could be the potential GOP candidate at the greatest disadvantage.

“The more that social policy is emphasized, the more the electability gap [between Romney and Santorum] could grow,” Silver writes.

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