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01.19.12

Rick Santorum Ambushed at Personhood Forum by Abortion Flyers, Ron Paul Fans

The social-issues candidate was outflanked at a Personhood USA meeting in South Carolina by Ron Paul backers who dominated the audience, and pro-life activists who circulated flyers that smeared Santorum’s anti-abortion bona fides and attacked his wife.

Somebody is playing dirty tricks on Rick Santorum.

Wednesday afternoon, all the Republican presidential candidates except Mitt Romney spoke at a town-hall meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, organized by Personhood USA, the hardline anti-abortion group. It should have been Santorum’s sweet spot—after all, no other candidate has made social issues so central to his campaign. The forum seemed designed to amplify his attacks on Romney. Each candidate was questioned for 20 minutes by a panel of three anti-abortion activists, who made frequent reference to Romney’s pro-choice past and his refusal to attend the event. In the end, though, the night might have hurt Santorum most of all.

For one thing, the audience was dominated, unexpectedly, by vocal Ron Paul supporters, with only a small number of visible Santorum fans. That’s a bad sign for the ex-senator, since if he can’t dominate at an anti-abortion gathering, he can’t dominate anywhere. Worse, while hundreds of attendees were inside the Greenville Hilton ballroom, someone was slipping flyers on their windshields warning that when it comes to abortion, Santorum is really a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who doesn’t mean what he says.

South Carolina Personhood Debate
C. Aluka Berry / The State-MCT-AP

Printed on pink paper, the flyers purported to be letters from one Elizabeth Leichert, a pro-life activist from Parker, S.C. “Dear Pro-Life Friend,” they began. “Like many Christians I know, I was originally very attracted to Rick Santorum’s positions—especially on the Right to Life issue. But that was before I began digging into his record.”

Much of the letter is an attack on Rick Santorum’s wife, Karen, for her relationship with Tom Allen, a doctor who performed abortions, who she lived with before she met Rick. “This abortion doctor was 30 years her senior! In fact, he delivered her as a baby!” the letter says. In fact, as Newsweek has reported, Allen was more than 40 years older than Karen.. Whoever wrote the letter should have known this, since he or she uses one of Allen’s quotes from the Newsweek piece: “Karen had no problems with what I did for a living.”

If Santorum can’t dominate at an anti-abortion gathering, he can’t dominate anywhere.

Then the letter recapitulates a rather dishonest charge Ron Paul has used against Santorum in a TV ad: that he funded Planned Parenthood. The source of the charge is an appropriations bill Santorum voted for that included money for Title X, the federal family planning program. Even by the tendentious standards of political campaigning, it’s a stretch to tar individual legislators with everything contained in the omnibus spending bills they vote for. Santorum tried to explain this during the Personhood forum. He pointed out that he was instrumental in putting funding for abstinence into the same appropriations bill, and had he voted against it, he could have been accused of voting against abstinence.

Yet the very fact that he was put on the defensive in such a friendly setting suggests he’s in trouble, especially since the letter amplified the charge. Whoever was behind it seems to have learned from Karl Rove, who once told Texas journalists, “I don’t attack people on their weaknesses…Voters already perceive weaknesses. You’ve got to go after the other guy’s strengths.” Thus when aiming at John Kerry, a war hero, he smeared his military record. And so Santorum, whose opposition to abortion is the lodestar of his politics, now has to prove that he’s not a crypto pro-choicer.

The letter ended by describing Santorum in terms more often used for Romney. “I’m worried the facts about Rick Santorum won’t get out in time for this South Carolina Primary, and pro-lifers will be fooled into voting someone [sic] like Rick Santorum who DOES NOT share our values,” it says. “He just wants to be President so badly, he’ll say anything to be elected.”

Indeed, if you hadn’t been following the primary, you’d have left the Hilton on Wednesday thinking that Paul, the OB/GYN, was the best-known abortion opponent in the race. Unlike Perry, Gingrich and Santorum, he wasn’t in Greenville, appearing instead via live video feed from Washington, D.C. It didn’t matter—he thrilled the largely adoring crowd, and managed to stay on message, never meandering into tangents about pet issues like the gold standard.

Our culture, he argued, has been degenerating since the 1960s. “That’s when the drug culture started, the war was going on, the pornography came out, and the abortion issue came in,” he said. Paul doesn’t dwell on this stuff when he’s speaking to libertarian crowds, which may be why some Paul supporters are under the misapprehension that he just wants to return the issue of abortion to the states. In fact, speaking at the Personhood forum, he made it clear that he only wants to do that while working toward an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. He even boasted of his ability to win libertarians to the anti-abortion cause.

Some libertarians, he said, see limiting a woman’s choice as a violent act. “But as a physician, I can talk to them and say look, I’ll show you on the ultrasound,” he said. “I’ll show you what they’re doing. This is an act of violence. And this has helped me convert many, many people.”

On Wednesday, he probably converted a few to his campaign, too.