Rick Santorum's near-win in Iowa has bolstered his national profile but he may have his work cut out for him in attracting Jewish support.
Pro-Israel insiders say the Santorum campaign is now aggressively reaching out to Jewish givers who helped him when he was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
Santorum's stumbling block, they say, is his hard-line stance on social issues like abortion, gay rights and church-state separation.
Santorum, long lagging at the bottom of the polls, finished only eight votes behind Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in the Iowa caucuses.
But Santorum slid to fifth place in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Pundits have said he'll need a strong showing in South Carolina to regain the momentum he picked up in Iowa.
"I think he is the latest not-Romney," said Stuart Green, a longtime member of the Republican Jewish Coalition who lives in Lafayette Hill and backed Santorum when he was in the Senate. "My own personal opinion is that it's over, and that it's going to be Romney."
Santorum, 53, got a boost by a conservative base that has never been comfortable with Romney. While others in the field have fallen back to Earth, some argue that Santorum could be buoyed in South Carolina, which holds its primary later this month, and beyond by his potential appeal to working-class voters and religious conservatives.
But it appears that many local Jews who backed him while he was in the Senate aren't doing so now.
William Wanger, a Montgomery County attorney who is president of the local chapter of the RJC, said, "Although I have known Sen. Santorum since 1992, and supported him when he was senator, I've been a fan of Mitt Romney since 2008 and remain so. Most of the Pennsylvania GOP Jews I know are likewise supporting Mitt."
He added that he doesn't think Santorum has the "funds, organization and/or broad enough appeal to win the other primaries, let alone be able to secure the nomination and win in November. That's why I'm supporting Mitt."
Though he hasn't received a groundswell of Jewish support, Santorum does have his Jewish fans.
Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman and a past president of the the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has donated the maximum to Santorum's campaign -- $2,500 -- and says he's readying a pitch to fellow pro-Israel givers.
"He can appeal to a lot of independents. He's got the right economic message," Kaplan said.
In his near-victory speech after the Iowa caucuses, Santorum chided his fellow Republicans, urging them to look beyond budget numbers and focus more on jobs.
Santorum calls for tripling the personal tax deduction per child; freezing spending on Medicaid, food stamps and other social welfare programs; turning Medicare into a voucher program for beneficiaries to buy their own private insurance; and adjusting Social Security eligibility and benefits.
During his two terms in the Senate, from 1995 to 2006, Santorum had a positive working relationship with Jewish communal groups in Pennsylvania, earmarking federal funding for projects they supported, among them the naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, pioneered by the Jewish federation system.
"His office was great in terms of helping to find money for projects," said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
She added that "some of his very militant stands on issues that have to do with choice, with homosexuality -- it made some people in the community uncomfortable."
It's a past that other candidates and some Tea Party activists have now turned against him, with earmarks -- derided as "pork" -- decidedly unpopular among conservatives.
Robert Guzzardi, a conservative Republican activist who lives in Lower Merion, wrote in an email that "the evidence is overwhelming and compelling that Rick Santorum has a long record as a big-government, pro-life statist."
Santorum's rhetoric on social issues can be polarizing, though he argues that when it comes to things like abortion and gay marriage, there's little substantive difference between him and his opponents.
In a 2003 interview, when asked whether gay people should refrain from having sex, Santorum responded by defending the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws.
And, on Jan. 5 he told listeners of a Boston radio show that "we always need a Jesus guy" in the campaign."We need someone who believes in something more than themselves and not just the economy," Santorum said. "When we say, 'God bless America,' do we mean it, or do we just say it?"
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, said in a statement that Santorum's "Jesus candidate" remark was "inappropriate and exclusionary."
While Santorum's penchant for hard-edged talk on social issues often has defined his public image -- he's also talked about outlawing birth control and urging working mothers to stay home -- supporters point to a softer side, including a well-known story of supporting a long-time staffer who revealed he was gay.
A devout Roman Catholic -- albeit one who belonged to the historically Jewish fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi when he was an undergraduate at Penn State -- Santorum and his wife, Karen, are the parents of seven children.
On the campaign trail, he has moved audiences discussing the loss of an eighth child, Gabriel, who was born premature in 1996 and survived only two hours, and the family's round-the-clock care for Isabella, his youngest at 3, who was born with Trisomy 18, a disorder that kills most of its victims in their first year of life.
He played a large role in shaping President George W. Bush's massive expansion of funding for AIDS victims in Africa.
Santorum has stood out from the Republican field with his vigorous opposition to calls from his fellow candidates to slash foreign aid -- calls that have been criticized by some supporters of Israel.
Perhaps Santorum's deepest appeal to Jewish backers is his steadfast pro-Israel posture. As a freshman senator in 1996, he helped shape an early installment of Iran sanctions legislation. He also has taken a tough line toward the Palestinians, explaining while campaigning in Iowa that the West Bank "is legitimately Israeli country" and that "all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they're not Palestinians."
He also has been supportive of possible military action against Iran, even delving into particulars.
"I would say to every foreign scientist that's going into Iran to help them with their nuclear program, 'You will be treated as an enemy combatant,' " he said recently on NBC's Meet the Press. Working with Israel, he added, "we will degrade those facilities through air strikes and make it very public that we are doing that."
Although such positions strike a chord among Jewish Republicans, it may not be enough to win him much support in the community, according to Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor for Commentary, a conservative publication that doesn't endorse candidates.
Tobin, a former executive editor of the Jewish Exponent, said that "the vast majority of Jewish Republicans understand that if their party is to take advantage of the limited opening that President Obama's spats with Israel have given them, they must nominate a candidate that is not identified with the Christian right."
Tobin added that Santorum's "hard-line views on social issues render him toxic even among Jewish Republicans, let alone Jews in general." u
JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas reported from Washington for this story.