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Santorum's provocative language could be obstacle

By Ros Krasny

BOSTON (Reuters) - Republican candidate Rick Santorum has won support from American conservatives for his views on social issues but a habit of hyperbole may lead to stumbles in his White House bid.

In Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, Santorum compared contraception to deodorant and soap when making a point about why he believes birth control should not be covered by health insurers.

"Let's mandate that every insurance policy covers toothpaste. Deodorant. That might be a good idea, right? Have everyone cover deodorant, right? Soap. I mean, where do you stop?"

Santorum also fell back on a well-worn Republican criticism that President Barack Obama and his administration are elitists.

"Don't you see how they see you? How they look down their nose at the average Americans? These elite snobs," said Santorum, who reported 2010 income of almost $1 million, according to financial disclosure forms.

Though he is giving Republican rival Mitt Romney a run for his money in the nomination race, Santorum's language might be an obstacle if he wins his party's nomination to challenge Obama in the November 6 election.

"As a frontrunner you have to watch exactly what you say," said Donna Robinson Devine, professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. "The attention has moved to Santorum, but to me he seems very whiny. I just can't imagine him as president."

Santorum's most famous equivalence came from 2003.

In an interview, he said that if the Supreme Court protected the right for gays to have consensual sex in their own homes, "then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

Comments in that interview that homosexuality was not as bad as bestiality raised even more eyebrows.

"That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be," he said.

Santorum lost his 2006 re-election bid to the U.S. Senate for Pennsylvania by 18 percentage points to Democrat Robert Casey.

Among those who turned against the incumbent were young voters, said Geoff Garin, a strategist who polled for Casey in that race. "Young people thought he was kind of weirdly out of sync with modern times," Garin said.

In January, Santorum was booed by an audience of high school and college students in Concord, New Hampshire, after equating same-sex marriages, legal in the state for two years, to polygamy.

"What about three men?" Santorum said, after being asked how it affected him, personally, if two gay men or lesbians married. "If you think it's OK for two, you have to differentiate for me why you're not OK with three. Any two people, or any three, or four."

Talia Stroud, a professor of communications at the University of Texas in Austin, said it was uncertain how much any one of Santorum's individual comments would resonate.

"It depends on how much that item stays in the news cycle. A lot of issues crop up, but a lot of how it impacts public opinion depends on how much it is recirculated," said Stroud, who studies the media's role in shaping political attitudes.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu)