The Social-Conservative Frontrunner

FORT MADISON, IOWA—Rick Santorum's campaign staffers must have fallen asleep with smiles on their faces last night. The former Pennsylvania senator has spent more time than any other candidate visiting Iowa, yet he has struggled to gain traction in the polls even among the evangelical base that led Mike Huckabee to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus.

A string of new endorsements from the state's evangelical leaders might have provided Santorum with just the boost he needs to move out of the bottom rung, but they also carry the risk of reminding voters of Santorum's history of incendiary comments against the LGBT community.

Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, endorsed Santorum yesterday. I met with Hurley earlier this summer in the basement cafeteria of the Iowa State Capitol to discuss the state's judicial politics and the campaign against three state Supreme Court justices who in 2009 ruled that denying same-sex couples marriage rights was unconstitutional.

"A lot of people from kind of a common-sense, natural-law perspective look at two guys walking down the aisle and something just doesn't look right," Hurley told me. "It may be love, it may be affection, it may be whatever, but it's not marriage."

He continued, arguing that because Iowans work in the fields they have a deeper understanding of why homosexuality is wrong. "Iowa is more a less a rural state and people who have grown up on a farm kind of understand how—I mean everybody does—but I'm just saying the rural life probably there's a little closer connection with nature," he said. "So the natural law, sort of commonsense: 'that doesn't look right.' Putting two bulls into a pasture and expecting to have a calf. Ain't going to happen."

Those comments were reminiscent of Santorum's infamous 2003 remarks in which he compared homosexuality to incest and bestiality. "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy; you have the right to incest; you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything," Santorum said during an AP interview following the US Supreme Court's decision on Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. That statement riled the LGBT community, and inspired sex columnist Dan Savage to coin the vulgar neologism "santorum" whose definition, to the candidate's dismay, now ranks among the top search results in Google.

Hurley isn't the only anti-gay Santorum backer. Bob Vander Plaats, a longtime ally of Hurley's in championing social conservative causes, also endorsed Santorum yesterday. Earlier this year, Vander Plaats called homosexuality a "public health risk" and likened it to second-hand smoke. "If we’re teaching the kids, ‘don’t smoke, because that’s a risky health style,’ the same can be true of the homosexual lifestyle," he told ThinkProgress's Scott Keyes.

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