Obama targets Santorum to confuse Republicans

As former senator surges ahead of Mitt Romney, President's aides question his 'divisive' policies

After months of throwing rotten tomatoes from afar at Mitt Romney, the political aides behind Barack Obama's re-election campaign are giving some of the same treatment to Rick Santorum.

Like everyone, Team Obama is assessing quite how seriously it should be taking Mr Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose recent sweep of three states in the Republican nomination race punctured Mr Romney's front-runner status. Latest polls suggest that Mr Santorum could also win the next ballots in Michigan and Ohio.

David Axelrod, a former White House political aide who now advises the Obama campaign, told CBS News that voters would hesitate when they looked at Mr Santorum's "divisive" positions on social issues as well as his economic platform. "I don't think the average working person in this economy is going to look at his economic policies and say, 'Yeah, that's the ticket for me'," he said.

Mr Obama's campaign has emailed Democratic Party supporters in Pennsylvania soliciting memories of what Mr Santorum was like before he left the Senate in 2006. "Pennsylvanians who know what Rick Santorum is all about have an important story to tell folks in the other 49 states," the email said. "Tell us what you most want the rest of the country to know about Rick Santorum."

The nomination race is more muddled than ever. Mr Romney, 64, still has daunting spending and organisational advantages. Yet an average of the latest polls in his home state of Michigan, which votes on 28 February and really should be in Mr Romney's pocket, gave Mr Santorum, 53, an eight-point lead. And as he continued campaigning across Michigan yesterday, another poll suggested that he would trounce Mr Romney in Ohio by 18 points on 6 March.

Complicating the picture further is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker. His exit from the race would give Mr Santorum a huge boost because he would be the only remaining conservative alternative to Mr Romney. But sources said last night that a casino tycoon, Sheldon Adelson, was poised to give another $10m to the super-political action committee supporting Mr Gingrich – plenty to keep him in the contest.

Team Obama's motives for starting to attack Mr Santorum are less obvious than they may seem. They love the fact he is surging in the polls: it lengthens the agony of Republicans as they try to agree on a candidate. And if Mr Santorum can make it all the way and snatch the crown from Mr Romney, they think that of the two he is far more beatable.

"They would love to have Santorum as their opponent, believe me, and they are trying to give him some juice," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "I am certain of it. They want to keep the Republican campaign going for as long as they can."

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