To be a supporter of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum during his run for the Republican presidential nomination is to find oneself in a perpetual state of denial about what he truly believes.
Small government conservatives want to believe he's one of them, despite a record of supporting every massive spending initiative, including unfunded wars, put forward by the Bush administration.
Mr. Santorum's "I'm from coal country" spiel resonates with many blue-collar voters despite a long record as one of the kings of the K Street hustlers. Some with libertarian impulses support the former senator despite his skepticism about a right to privacy enshrined by the Constitution.
There are many who fear the specter of intrusive government who are solidly in Mr. Santorum's corner despite his starring role in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die spectacle.
When he tells crowds in Iowa that contraceptives are bad and that states have the right to ban them, he assures reporters in New Hampshire that if elected president, he wouldn't sign legislation to outlaw birth control because it isn't a federal issue. It may sound like a cynical, two-faced ploy, but a politician has to give himself wiggle room because moral convictions are nothing if not fungible.
Still, when he tells audiences how John Kennedy's promise to respect the separation of church and state literally made him "want to vomit," he's offering a glimpse into the psyche of the real Rick Santorum. Strip away the guile and the populist facade, and it won't be long until the pink chewy nougat of intolerance at his center erupts in your face.
Although Mr. Santorum rivals former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as this year's most articulate Republican presidential candidate, he acts as if taking offense at what he says is either to misunderstand or mishear him.
The Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, it sounded like Mr. Santorum told an audience: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
Initially, Mr. Santorum didn't deny making the comment glibly associating black people with welfare dependency, but said he wanted to see the full context of the statement. In the face of mounting outrage, he amended the record and said he wasn't talking about black people at all.
He insists it was a verbal stumble and that he actually said "blah people." He prefers the term "African-American" to black, anyway. Predictably, this has ticked off the once obscure National Association for the Advancement of Blah People.
A few months ago, Mr. Santorum made an infamous reference to President Obama's pro-choice stance. At that time, Mr. Santorum had no trouble using the term black. "I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say 'now we are going to decide who are people and who are not people,' " Mr. Santorum said, regarding the president's opinion on abortion. Perhaps everyone misheard him that time, too. In retrospect, it's possible he could have been referring to Mr. Obama as a "blah" man.
Last week, Mr. Santorum's former aide, Robert Traynham, went on MSNBC's "Hardball" to defend his old boss against Chris Matthews. Although he no longer works for the senator, Mr. Traynham had been his trusted aide for a decade. Contrary to all expectations, he's black and gay -- a rare twofer in Mr. Santorum's inner circle (yeah, I'd be willing to bet $10,000 on that generalization).
Ever vigilant to affronts to Mr. Santorum's dignity and reputation, Mr. Traynham pushed back at the notion that his old boss ever equated homosexuality with bestiality or compared being gay to being polygamous. It was a remarkable performance that illustrated the reality distortion field that continues to surround Mr. Santorum and his supporters.
Having a black gay defender who is willing to go on "Hardball" to fight for him borders on the supernatural. For the record, Mr. Traynham once screamed his lungs out at this columnist for satirizing his boss' children. His indignation sounded real at the time and not the obligatory "I gotta holler at you because my boss expects me to."
Honestly, Mr. Santorum doesn't strike me as racist so much as massively out of step with what it means to live in a diverse society. In Rick Santorum's world, we are all blah people.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.