Ghosts of Santorum's Past Follow Him to Key Debate

Rick Santorum has said that women in military combat positions could dangerously spin men's "emotions," that being gay was like "man on dog" sex and that President Obama has a "phony theology" -  a statement Santorum's spokeswoman later said was directed at Obama's "radical Islamic policies."

Yet every time Santorum utters what would normally be deemed a "gaffe" in presidential politics, the right-wing ex-senator from Pennsylvania emerges from the dust barely bruised. Republican primary voters haven't punished him by swinging their allegiance to another candidate, even as Santorum's opponents dig up his potentially incriminating quotes from the past.

New polls should be sending thrills up Santorum's leg. A Quinnipiac poll says he leads Mitt Romney 35 percent to 26 percent nationally. An AP poll frames the race closer, with Santorum getting 33 percent to Romney's 32 percent. In Michigan, he's down in an NBC/Marist poll by 2 points to Romney, who calls the soon-to-vote state "home."

Tonight's debate in Arizona might be Romney's best - and last - chance to strip down Santorum's body armor by challenging him directly over Santorum's comments on social matters. The question is whether voters who make their picks on Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona will care.

The latest controversy to dog the resurgent Santorum is a speech he gave four years ago in which he said that "Satan has his sights set on America." The conservative hero Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who has endorsed Romney, has said that Santorum's speech "is by definition relevant."

Perhaps suggesting that he's not vulnerable on such matters, Santorum said Tuesday that voters didn't have to worry about what he says "because I will defend everything I say."

"Whenever people can refer to something you gave as the Satan speech, that's not a good sign," said Dan Judy, a Republican strategist and pollster.

The speech is likely to be a topic at tonight's debate, where Santorum and Romney will be the stars. Newt Gingrich, who enjoyed victory in South Carolina but has since flat-lined, has said that he likes Santorum and is unlikely to attack him. Ron Paul, meanwhile, will probably stick to his alliance with Romney and try to get under Santorum's skin, which he can do.

Romney will have the chance to turn to Santorum and ask him about plenty of seemingly controversial comments he's made, such as his statement that birth control is "harmful" to women and society, or that women in the front lines "could be in a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved."

Those comments haven't been enough to drag down Santorum's support among women. In the Quinnipiac poll, Santorum tops Romney 34 percent to 28 percent among women (and 35 percent to 24 percent among men).

"The controversy about Santorum's remarks about women in combat and birth control doesn't seem to be hurting him among Republican women, at least not much," Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said in the survey's release.

Rehashing those statements on a national stage in a key debate could carry more weight, especially if Santorum stumbles in defending them.

"A lot of Santorum's positions and statements are outside the mainstream, even among conservatives," Judy said. "He has shown a tendency to get riled up and to kind of whine and look angry. I've always felt like if he's not careful, he has a tendency to come across as the kid in the class who, just as the bell's about to ring, reminds the teacher that he forgot to give homework."