“We always need a Jesus candidate.”
–Rick Santorum, speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire, January 5, 2012

In an election season that was supposed to be about jobs, the deficit, and Americans’ checkbooks, the swift rise of Rick Santorum, one of the most socially conservative political candidates in America, has caught political analysts off guard. It is also making some Jewish Republicans queasy.

“Do I have reservations about Rick Santorum? Yes and no,” says one prominent Jewish Republican from Southern California. “On issues like Israel, national security, and economic policy, I have great admiration for Rick Santorum. But I fear that his positions on social issues make him unelectable.”

Santorum’s outspoken opposition to abortion, gay rights, and his willingness to weigh in on other hot-button social issues contrasts with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s focus on the economy. The Romney team has been gambling that its candidate’s credentials as the former head of an investment firm and CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics will attract moderate and independent voters who are unhappy with President Obama’s economic record.

The problem with this strategy, according to a Republican Jewish activist from Baltimore, is that Romney’s executive experience is helpful against Obama, but doesn’t resonate with Republican primary voters.

‘The conundrum is that a Republican who can win the general election can’t win the primary. And the candidate who can win the Republican primary can’t win the general election’

“The conundrum is that a Republican who can win the general election can’t win the primary. And the candidate who can win the Republican primary can’t win the general election,” he says.

If some Jewish Republicans are hitting the panic-button over the rise of Santorum, who is Catholic and a father of seven, Jewish Democrats are relishing the prospect of an Obama-Santorum match-up.

“Rick Santorum is simply a non-starter as a candidate for American Jews, who are progressive in their views and lopsidedly vote Democratic,” says David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “He’s too extreme for independents and a clear majority of Americans already. I’m confident that, as the most far-right social issues candidate in this race, he will repel the vast majority of American Jews.”

Santorum may have dug himself a deeper hole with Jewish voters over the weekend, when he panned John F. Kennedy’s landmark 1960 speech calling for the separation of and politics and religion.

Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Santorum said the Kennedy speech makes him sick.

“What kind of country do we live in that says on people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” he said. “That makes me throw up.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called those remarks “deeply disturbing” and said they represent “a profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment.”

“In a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy, people of one faith should not seek to use the power of the government to impose their views on people of other faiths or of no faith,” wrote ADL National Chair Robert G. Sugarman and ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman in a letter to the candidate. “This message is as important today as it was when candidate Kennedy faced anti-Catholic bigotry as he sought the presidency in 1960.”

In 2008, President Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. A former Jewish White House official under George W. Bush who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity noted that Bush won only 19 percent of the Jewish vote during his razor-thin election in 2000 and 24 percent in 2004, when his margin of victory was more comfortable. He says that, although the Jewish vote is statistically small, it’s an important indicator for forecasting the election, especially in crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio.

All eyes will be on the February 28 primary showdown in Michigan, as Romney struggles to fend off Santorum in a state that, until recently, was considered a lock for Romney. His father, George Romney Sr. was a two-time Michigan governor and Romney was born in a suburb of Detroit. Polls have been in flux in recent weeks, with each man enjoying periods on top, but Romney appears to have pulled ahead slightly in Michigan after a debate held there last week.

‘I’m confident that, as the most far-right social issues candidate in this race, he will repel the vast majority of American Jews’

Peter Wehner, an influential conservative who worked in the White House for three Republican presidents, last week took to the pages of Commentary Magazine – a popular publication in Jewish Republican circles – to make the case against Santorum’s social conservatism.

“A wise observer told me years ago that for a politician to be seen as the aggressor in the culture wars is the quickest way to lose them,” said Wehner, who is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based conservative think tank in which Santorum himself was a Senior Fellow until recently.

Wehner notes that Santorum has said that contraception damages American society, supports the criminalization of doctors who oppose abortions, and has recently made a passionate case against prenatal testing. Santorum has even said that Satan is systematically attacking key American institutions.

“The danger for Santorum is that, fairly or not, these statements and stands, separately and (especially) combined, create a portrait of a person who is censorious and sits in critical judgment of the lifestyle of most Americans.”

Nevertheless, the Jewish Republican from California says he and all of his like-minded Jewish friends will rally behind whoever gets the Republican nod, including Santorum.

“Although I’m more comfortable with Romney than Santorum, I’m also far more comfortable with Santorum than I am with Obama,” he says. “Santorum’s position on taxes, the economy, and especially Israel, are better than Obama’s.”

Harris believes the mountain Santorum needs to climb to attract Jewish voters is insurmountable.

“We have a good sense how American Jews will receive him by looking to the immediate past,” he says. “In his most recent Senate race in Pennsylvania, Jewish voters rejected him overwhelmingly by a 78-22 margin. And that’s where they know him best.”