Rick Santorum's Arlen Specter problem

Former Senator Rick Santorum
Picture courtesy Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Rick Santorum surged to a near-victory in the Iowa caucuses thanks in large part to his appeal to the social conservatives who dominate the Iowa GOP electorate. As he works to build on his momentum and become the consensus conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, social conservatives are taking a second look at the two-term Pennsylvania senator's record.

For the most part, they like what they see. A staunch Catholic who homeschooled his seven children, Santorum has been in line with social conservatives on abortion and same-sex marriage, among other issues important to the group; he has vowed to reinstate the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and nullify all gay marriages.

There is one position, however, that social conservatives ask Santorum about regularly on the campaign trail, an issue that also comes up regularly on conservative talk radio: His support for former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 GOP Senate primary. Specter, a moderate switched to the Democratic Party in 2009, is a supporter of gay rights - he voted to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - and, more crucially, evolved into a staunch supporter of abortion rights.

When Santorum was trying to get his presidential campaign off the ground in 2010, he was asked at a conservative conference about his decision to back Specter over the more conservative Pat Toomey.

Santorum said he made a hard decision that was grounded in his opposition to abortion, saying Specter had agreed he would support then-President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees no matter what. Specter denies this assertion.

Santorum said he wanted to make sure the high court was as conservative as possible.

"You questioned my judgment, and you have every right to do so," Santorum told the questioner. "But please don't question my intention to do what's right for those little babies."

More recently, Santorum has defended his support for Specter by arguing that if Specter had lost his Senate seat, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito would not have been confirmed by the Senate.

Before she left the presidential race, Rep. Michele Bachmann went after Santorumon his support for Specter.

"Arlen Specter supplied the 60th vote that gave us Obamacare and gave us taxpayer-funded abortions," she said. "I never would have supported Arlen Specter, who is a pro-abortion candidate. I never would have done that, and so there are real differences between us."

You can expect Rick Perry, Santorum's chief challenger in the race to consolidate social conservative support, to raise Santorum's support for Specter ahead of the January 21 primary in deeply conservative South Carolina. Perry communications director Ray Sullivan recently told Hotsheetthat South Carolina "will be the next big battle for the philosophical soul of the party," and Perry is largely skipping the New Hampshire primary in hopes of reinvigorating his campaign in the Palmetto State. 

Santorum's support for Specter is not Perry's only entry-point on abortion: While Santorum backed a bill to allow legal abortion in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is in danger, Perry recently said he no longer believes a woman should have access to legal abortion if she has been raped or the baby would be the product of incest.

Full CBS News coverage: Rick Santorum