Republicans shift right as Santorum draws level with Romney

Inevitability of victory by front-runner is suddenly in doubt as conservative rival surges in polls

With new polls showing him surging in the Republican nomination derby, Rick Santorum, the social conservative from Pennsylvania, challenged the party yesterday to select him over Mitt Romney as someone they can "get excited about".

The former senator, who took all three of the states that voted on Tuesday, won a standing ovation at a gathering of conservative Republicans in Washington. On stage with five of his seven children and his wife behind him, he repeatedly alluded to the perception that Mr Romney, even as the front-runner, has failed to generate enthusiasm for his candidacy, particularly among conservatives.

"Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of the party who the party's not excited about? We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November to excite the conservative base, to pull with the excitement moderate voters, and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall," he said.

A flurry of polls show Mr Santorum picking up speed, including one taken by Fox News over four days before and after his Tuesday victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. While he trailed by a wide margin nationally before those votes, he has since doubled his score, the poll said, putting him in a tie with Mr Romney with 30 per cent each. A Rasmussen poll showed Mr Obama beating Mr Romney by 10 points if the election were held today, but winning by only four points if Mr Santorum were his opponent.

Separately, Mr Obama rushed to extricate himself from political disaster triggered by a rule in his healthcare reform requiring employers, including institutions run by the Catholic Church, to provide free contraception to employees. It sparked public protests from bishops and gave easy ammunition to Republicans.

At a White House press conference yesterday, Mr Obama announced an exemption for Catholic charities. The revised rule will require the insurance companies to provide the service rather than the charities themselves. It is a subtle change to take the onus away from religious bodies to provide the service.

It is unlikely that any of the Republican contenders will let Mr Obama off the hook on the issue that quickly, however. It fits particularly well into the message of Mr Santorum, a devout Catholic who is anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion and whose faith runs even to believing in creationism over evolution.

In his address to the annual CPAC conference, Mr Santorum, who has raised $2.2m since just Tuesday, painted a radical vision of conservatism that would reject global warming as being man-made and would denounce Mr Obama's healthcare reforms, which he likened to the NHS, as taking away personal liberty and encouraging a culture of dependency.

Baroness Thatcher, he said, left office lamenting she had not done all that Ronald Reagan had done in the United States. "The reason," Mr Santorum suggested, "was the British National Health System. Since people have the dependency they are never ever really free again."

The turnouts in Tuesday's elections were low, suggesting the grass roots of the party are not thrilled with any of the candidates. Mr Santorum still has to prove that he can hold on to any momentum he saw last Tuesday. Perhaps more urgently he also has to dispense with Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who is competing with him to become the conservative alternative to Mr Romney.

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