As has been noted today, Rick Santorum's strong showing last night was quite possibly fueled by the recent resurgence of the culture war issues that are Santorum's bread and butter: abortion rights, contraception, and gay marriage. But it's also worth noting how ill-suited Mitt Romney will be to fighting on this ground in both the primaries and the general election, if social issues do become tempting terrain for Republicans as the economy continues to improve.
It has already been well-documented that Romney is compromised in the biggest battle of the moment, over the Obama administration's decision to require large Catholic institutions -- universities, hospitals and charities -- to cover contraception in employees' health plans. As the Boston Globe has assiduously reported, Romney as governor of Massachusetts required Catholic hospitals to provide Plan B to rape victims. His campaign has tried to counter that Romney vetoed a bill with this requirement five months before reversing himself in December 2005, but that has only exposed him further to the flip-flopper charge and it hasn't kept Santorum and Newt Gingrich from hammering Romney as hypocritical in now taking on the Obama decision. The Obama campaign is piling on by pointing out that the requirements for birth control coverage under Romneycare were similar to what Obamacare has settled on. Then of course there is the small matter that Romney ran as a pro-choice candidate in 1994 and 2002 before his 2005-06 conversion.
But there is another way in which this swath of issues could be tricky for Romney: they could bring him into closer proximity with his religion than he has so far managed to be. In criticizing the Obama administration over the birth control ruling, Romney, like other Republicans, has framed it as "attacks on religious liberty." It remains to be seen whether this argument will prevail against the administration's claims on behalf of women's health and gender equity -- there are signs that the administration may be backtracking slightly. But does Romney really want to spend much of the months ahead pounding the lectern on religious liberty? That's Santorum's wheelhouse. But for Romney, it cannot help but remind voters that he hails from a religion that, not so long ago, was invoking religious liberty to defend practices that are now deemed utterly unacceptable -- polygamy, a century ago, (his own great-grandfather led the way in establishing a Mormon outpost in Mexico to avoid a federal crackdown on polygamy) and more recently the banning of African-Americans from positions of leadership.
Similarly, on yesterday's appeals court ruling against Proposition 8 in California, Romney decried the decision as stridently as anyone, going so far as to imply that the ruling was biased because of a judge's sexual orientation. But if he keeps talking about Prop 8, surely that will mean more attention to the fact that members of his church, to which he has given millions of dollars over the years, spent an estimated $20 million to help pass Prop 8. For a candidate who has taken such pains to keep his faith in the background -- mentioning its name only once even in the big speech he gave about it in 2007 -- this is surely not a direction he is eager to see the 2012 race heading in.