Can Santorum's big lead in PA prez primary last?

Republican candidate Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, speaks at a primary-night watch party Tuesday in Lafayette, La. The Deep South is the conservative heart of the Republican Party. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

With Pennsylvania’s late April primary suddenly looking like it will be a relevant inflection point in the Republican presidential race, a new Quinnipiac University poll Wednesday showed favorite son Rick Santorum with a commanding lead over Mitt Romney.

Santorum, who represented the state for two terms in the U.S. Senate, was the choice of 36 percent of registered Republicans in the survey, to 22 percent for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the establishment choice for the GOP nomination but faces resistance on the right.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul drew 12 percent support, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got 8 percent, according to the poll.

“Santorum’s lead among conservatives, Tea Party members and white evangelical Christians is what we have found in other states,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll, run by the eponymous university in Connecticut.

Interestingly, the poll found that GOP women in Pennsylvania preferred Santorum to Romney, 41 percent to 18 percent. (Former philanderer Gingrich got 7 percent of Republican women.) Men were about evenly split between the two leaders: 30 percent for Santorum, 27 percent for Romney.

The “gender gap” in Santorum’s favor is striking, as he has written and inveighed against the trend of working women damaging the integrity of the American family, opposes abortion rights and recently was talking about his view that birth control is immoral (though he does not want to ban it for those who disagree with him). Of course, millions of conservative women agree with Santorum’s positions, particularly on abortion.

Santorum lost his 2006 re-election campaign to the Senate by 18 percentage points to now-Sen. Bob Casey (D.,Pa.).

In hypothetical fall matchups, Santorum trailed President Obama, 46 percent to 45 percent. Obama led Romney 46-40.

Republican primary results, based on interviews with 508 GOP registrants, are subject to a 4.4 percentage point error margin. The overall results, based on interviews with 1,248 registered voters, are subject to a 2.8 percentage point error margin.

All this said, the Romney campaign’s B-52s are waiting on the tarmac for racks of attack TV ads to be loaded in, and Santorum is vulnerable with his conservative base in Pennsylvania on several fronts.

One, his full-throated support of moderate former Sen. Arlen Specter (who later became a Democrat) over a Club for Growth conservative in 2004; two, his enthusiasm for earmarks and massive increases in federal spending and programming, i.e. Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind; and three, the residency controversy that dogged his 2006 reelection campaign (Santorum, took money for homeschooling his kids in Virginia from the Penn Hills School District outside Pittsburgh, though he lived in Virginia. He owns a home in the district that was his legal “residence” on paper.)

On Tuesday, Romney stole a march on Santorum and unveiled endorsements from a raft of big-name state Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Bill Shuster, Charlie Dent, Jim Gerlach, Mike Fitzpatrick; former GOP chairman Alan Novak; and Don Adams, head of  the Independence Tea Party Association's political action committee.

And Wednesday morning, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also was the first Homeland Security secretary, added his name to the growing list of Romney supporters. Ridge had supported former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the Republican race before the South Carolina primary.