Eric Gay, Associated Press
TULSA, Okla. — Rick Santorum stirs his ever-growing crowds when he promises to right a country awash in "immoral debt" and to replace an administration he argues has "callousness toward life and family and faith."
Of the GOP presidential hopefuls, Santorum is by far the most public and emphatic about his faith, drawing on his Catholicism and deeply held views on social issues as the foundation of his message. It serves to solidify his standing among religiously motivated voters — and subtly remind them of lingering reservations of opponent Mitt Romney's spiritual background.
The former Pennsylvania senator is sure to find a receptive audience Friday in Washington, when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual gathering. But those remarks could sound a lot like Santorum's speeches of late, particularly those delivered in a two-day visit to Bible Belt states of Texas and Oklahoma.
When the GOP field was at its fullest, several candidates were fighting to be the favorite of religious conservative voters. Now, Santorum is moving to consolidate that wing of the party, which could make him a force in places like Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma and others on the upcoming primary calendar.
On Friday, he said he wanted to stick to substantive issues in the campaign and said he wasn't inclined to resort to the kind of negative advertising that others have employed so far this year.
Santorum said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that he intended to stick to comparisons of his record with that of Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, saying he wants to discuss things Americans care about, "not this back and forth that we've seen" so far.
Santorum said he doesn't want to try to win the nomination "by personally attacking people." His Southern swing, which ended Thursday with a stop at Oral Roberts University, followed a stunning three-state sweep Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri powered in part by his support among evangelical voters.
At the Christian liberal arts college, Santorum said his GOP competitors don't seem "particularly comfortable" talking about faith issues like he does.
He welcomed questions about his unbending views against abortion and gay marriage, using the latter to blast a federal appeals court ruling striking down California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. He lashed out repeatedly at the Obama administration for a new rule requiring religious schools and hospitals to provide insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.
And Santorum offered a window into his religious underpinnings when a self-identified Democrat asked how his Catholic roots and his opposition to President Barack Obama's signature health insurance law were compatible given Pope Benedict XVI's view that health care is a human right.
"I believe that you have an obligation to approach every issue in public life as I do from the standpoint of both faith and reason. My conscience was formed as a result of my life experience primarily through faith," Santorum answered. "I bring that to the table. Yes, that's who I am."
He added: "I have an obligation not to just look at things that way but also to bring reason. I always think if your faith is true and your reason is right you'll end up at the same place."
Gingrich is also Catholic, but social issues aren't as integral to his campaign. Paul, a Baptist, mentions religion in passing as a way to make a point about liberty.
Worries about Romney's Mormonism persist in some segments of the GOP even if they are less pronounced than in his 2008 bid. During that stunted campaign he delivered a major address intended to soothe concerns about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Voters showing up at Santorum events say his willingness to make faith central to his campaign make him more attractive.
"His values are my values," said Valerie Benton, a retired teacher from Edmond, Okla. "It's not like he's forcing his beliefs on anybody."
Such empathy shows through when Santorum employs what has become a favorite rhetorical device. He fondly quotes the Declaration of Independence to stress America was a nation founded on faith and its people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." He lowers his own voice when he gets to "Creator" and his crowds fill it in with gusto.
Santorum scoffs at suggestions that his focus should be elsewhere in a race driven by economic issues. "Strong families and building a strong family unit is good for the economy," he'll say.
As the campaign moves on, Santorum shows no signs of altering his message. His first stop after his three-state sweep was a gathering of Texas pastors. They laid their hands on the candidate to pray for his future success and for the continued health of his youngest daughter, who was temporarily hospitalized for a respiratory illness a couple weeks ago.
Santorum told the pastors that he wasn't running to be pastor in chief, but he suggested that religion needed to play a bigger role in public life.
"You guys could do a little better than you are right now," Santorum told the pastors.
They erupted in laughter.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in McKinney, Texas, contributed to this report.
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