DETROIT -- Even amid increased scrutiny, former Sen. Rick Santorum unapologetically wears his faith-fueled social conservatism on the heart of his trademark sweater vest.
But the same steely resolve that boosts him with the Republican Party's sizable social conservative bloc could also be a huge liability among moderate voters -- and among independents that a GOP candidate would need to win the general election.
Santorum is against legalized abortion, even in a case of rape or incest, and opposes same-sex marriage. He disapproves of gays serving openly in the military and of women in combat roles; warns of the dangers of prenatal testing; and is personally against manufactured contraceptives.
Many voters sympathize with Santorum's views. But many also worry that his social conservatism will alienate too many voters and make it hard to beat President Barack Obama in November.
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"He's extreme in his views on abortion," said Deloris Newell, a Roman Catholic Republican who lives in Canton Township near Detroit. "And don't tell me what God to worship. ... You cannot be an extreme liberal or an extreme conservative to win an election."
Santorum vigorously defended his views at Wednesday's GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz.
"And the media complains so much about these structured candidates and how they are all robotic," he said. "And then of course they have a candidate that doesn't do any of those things, they say, 'Oh, he's really out there, you have to worry about what he says.' No you don't, because I will defend everything I say."
But the more he does, the more questions he raises in the minds of many voters, particularly Republican and independent women.
"He tends to be strident about the social issues -- the way he talks about it doesn't give you any confidence," said former Rep. Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican from Connecticut who supports legalized abortion and served with Santorum for four years in the House of Representatives.
"The president helps govern, he doesn't dictate," she said.
Some voters and GOP officials have expressed unease about Santorum's comments on birth control. He opposed a provision in the 2010 healthcare law that required religious-based institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, to provide contraceptives as part of health coverage despite their doctrine against it.
After Republicans accused the Obama administration of attacking religious freedom, the White House amended the provision to make the insurer -- not the religious institution -- provide the birth control. Santorum joined other Republicans in objecting to the original provision on religious grounds, but he went on to voice his personal opposition to manufactured contraceptives. In 2006, he described contraceptives as "harmful to women" and "harmful to our society."