'Satan stalks America': Santorum words come back to haunt him

After four years, speech haunts the Republican front-runner as he tries to convert moderate voters

Mesa, Arizona

Rick Santorum, the front-runner in most national polls for the Republican nomination, was last night relishing controversy over remarks he made four years ago about Satan having “his sights” on America and accused Barack Obama of “crushing” the country’s Christian values.

As the candidates gathered her for last night’s Republican debate, Mr Santorum was drawing particular attention after the resurfacing of a speech he gave at a Christian university in Florida in 2008 that is highlighting his radical Christian stripes. His religiosity has helped him to win the enthusiastic support of the Republican right but which could alienate moderate and independent voters if he were to become the nominee.

"This is not a political war at all, this is not a culture war at all, this is a spiritual war," Mr Santorum told students at Ave Maria University in Naples. "And the father of lies has his sights on what you think the father of lies, Satan, would have his sights on. A good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America."

Mr Santorum, who for the first time was to take a centre spot on last night’s debate stage to reflect his new status in the race, faces key tests next Tuesday when Arizona and Michigan hold primary elections. Some polls put him in a dead heat in both states with Mitt Romney. His surge has ensured that an election cycle that was meant to be all about the economy has veered into the tricky terrain of social issues.

Campaigning in Arizona ahead of last night’s debate, Mr Santorum turned the furore around to target President Obama.  “We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America. We saw it with Obamacare and the implementation of Obamacare, where his values are going to be imposed on a church’s values,” he told a Tea Party rally here.

“I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil,” Mr Santorum said. “If somehow or another because you’re a person of faith, and you believe in good and evil, is a disqualifier for president, we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.’

After rallies here this morning, both Mr Santorum and Mr Romney will fly across the country to Michigan where the battle between them is especially intense. A win for Mr Romney in the state where he was born and where his father, George Romney, served as governor, is indispensable if he is to regain momentum. Newt Gingrich, for whom last night’s debate was especially crucial, is focusing on states that will vote on Super Tuesday the following week.

In a preview of a speech on tax reform he will make in Michigan tomorrow, Mr Romney last night told voters that it will include a pledge “to lower rates across the board for Americans by 20 per cent”.

For now his stance on social issues may be helping Mr Santorum’s rise to the top of the Republican field. He has questioned Mr Obama’s religious devotion and spoken of his opposition to a 1965 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a ban on birth control. Contraception, he said last October is, “not OK. It’s a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be”. Even sensuality is on his blacklist. In his 2008 speech he suggested that Satan was making inroads on America, “using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition”.

But in the longer term Mr Santorum may be sabotaging his chances of winning over moderate voters for whom religion and politics do not necessarily belong in the same sentence.

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