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Poll finds Santorum popular with women despite controversies

Over the past several weeks, Republicans have watched squeamishly as presidential contender Rick Santorum has waded into multiple controversies that risk alienating half the 2012 electorate: women.

But in fact, Santorum has grown more popular among women while talking about his opposition to abortion, his disapproval of birth control and his view that the federal government shouldn't pay for prenatal screenings. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows not only that Santorum is doing better among GOP women than he was a few weeks ago, but also that he is less unpopular, and also less well known, among Democratic and independent women than his Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Voters and political strategists alike say Santorum's rise has less to do with his views on these issues than on his ability to relate to the daily struggles of the middle class.

Nonetheless, the former senator from Pennsylvania and the other Republican candidates remain largely untested by the dynamics of a general election in which independent and Democratic women are expected to play a deciding role.

The Post-ABC poll, conducted on the heels of a week of scrutiny of Santorum's conservative views on a variety of women's health issues, shows that his popularity among GOP women has moved up 13 points since January, with the biggest bump in the past week, so that 57 percent hold a favorable view. Santorum is now within reach of Romney on that score: Sixty-one percent of Republican women view Romney favorably.

There is no evidence that Santorum's position among women in either party has dropped in recent weeks. That is a surprise to some Republicans, who have watched uncomfortably as he has engaged in high-profile discussions about abortion, contraception and prenatal screening.

Much of the talk has centered around past speeches and interviews, in which Santorum declared that birth control doesn't work and that it "is harmful to women" and the country. He argued that the use of birth control encourages sex outside of marriage, particularly among the young. On abortion, Santorum said that the government should not fund prenatal testing because in the majority of cases when such tests diagnose a disability in the fetus, women choose to abort.

Santorum's popularity has probably risen, several Republicans said, because he has stuck to his views while working to change the subject back to the core issue of the economy. That is something that Romney, despite his business background, has not done well, several Republican and Democratic strategists said.

"I just don't think Romney knows what life out here in the middle class is like at all, or cares," said Dorothy Theis, 78, a retiree from Corcoran, Minn.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Santorum distanced himself from the controversial remarks of a top political supporter, Foster Friess, who joked that when he was young, women prevented pregnancy by holding an aspirin between their knees. Santorum called the joke "stupid" and touted his own support for Title X, which provides poor women with birth control. He also tried to turn the conversation to manufacturing and energy, about which he had just given a speech in Detroit.

Santorum is the only candidate who talks regularly about his family and even about the price of milk, as he did recently. His campaign, too, has taken pains to cast his policies in a woman-friendly light, issuing a policy statement that describes his mother as the "primary breadwinner" when he was growing up and his wife as a lawyer, nurse and author.

"Rick knows first-hand what it means to run the car pool, pick up the kids from practice, help with homework and drop them off at their friends' houses, all while trying to get to work on time or home for dinner with the family," the statement reads.

One Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely said polling data and focus groups of women show that they are less turned off by candidates' views on women's health issues than they are by the bickering on the debate stage.

"What I find is that women tend to be remarkably practical in these conversations," the strategist said. "How is this going to impact the daily lives of myself and my family, at the very practical level?"

That reality creates peril for Obama and Democrats, too -- who have tried to frame the discussion about contraception as one that Republicans are driving, but who are doing a lot of the driving themselves.