With Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ratcheting up the rhetoric in the Republican nomination, questions are being raised about whether they are swinging too far to the right for the eventual GOP candidate to succeed in the general election.
On Saturday, Santorum and Romney were among several speakers before a sold-out crowd for the Michigan Prosperity Forum. Santorum, calling his rival out, said Romney was an elitist.
“I don’t come from the elite,” Santorum said. “I’m not going to let the elites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom and impose government control of your life.”
Santorum took more stabs at Romney, suggesting that was really a moderate, not a conservative.
“Every time we’ve run a moderate, we’ve lost,” he said. “Every time we’ve run a conservative – a complete conservative on all the issues, I might add, national security, culture and economy – we’ve won.”
Romney, who is still trying to prove his conservative bona fides in his own backyard, savaged his opponent and criticized Santorum. He said the former Pennsylvania senator supported his views and has even voted in favor of issues he says he doesn’t support.
“I can attest for my conservative credentials by quoting someone who endorsed me in my 2008 campaign,” said Romney in reference to Santorum’s endorsement four years ago, when he said Romney was “hitting his stride” and that it was exactly what conservatives wanted to hear at that time.
Although running to the right is part of Republican primary politics, some are starting to worry. Santorum, who leads some national polls, has spent a week speaking about social issues, from abortion to pre-natal testing and contraception.
In the past 24 hours, The Wall Street Journal, considered a barometer of the Republican establishment, ran two opinion pieces on Santorum asking if he is a “Moralizer in Chief?” and proclaiming “Democrats Are Praying for a Santorum Nomination.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassell said in an article that voters in general elections are “not thrilled by the recent trend in the social-conservative movement toward using government to impose a particular morality — a trend that Mr. Santorum would seem to highlight.”
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh disagrees.
“The Republican establishment is essentially saying that the conservatives are screwing everything up, making a mess of this,” he said.
With Santorum’s surge, Romney has been forced to move to the right, too, taking positions his supporters admit may make it harder to win the votes independents in the fall if he is the nominee.
The move to the right apparently isn’t helping either of the two candidates with independents. The most recent ABC News poll found Romney with at a 14-point disadvantage (33-47 percent) among independents. Santorum’s got challenges in this key group too, with a 33-38 percent favorability rating, according to the poll.