How does an underfunded candidate defend himself against a big onslaught of negative attack ads?  Newt Gingrich tried leveraging the media attention received from going nasty and personal in response and ended up flaming out in Florida and a string of caucuses in the last three weeks.  Rick Santorum has decided to use humor to just attack the attack in a new ad running called “Rombo”:

In its morning e-mail blast, Politico reports on the strategy, which purposefully avoids what it sees as the mistakes made by Gingrich in January:

Campaign leaders feel that Newt Gingrich’s initial dilly-dallying in Iowa after the Romney machine started attacking in early December proved fatal. They understand their man’s favorables will come down to earth as negative ads run, but they’re determined not to allow the frontrunner to define the former Pennsylvania senator without a fight. They decided that going funny, instead of nasty, would engender more goodwill from voters who think Romney went into the gutter to sideline Gingrich after South Carolina. Santorum plans to stay as positive as possible on the stump. Campaign officials will point out at every opportunity that Romney is the candidate being overwhelmingly backed by Washington lobbyists. The main talking point in coming earned media will be that Romney is attacking because he does not have a good record to run on.

Voters may well appreciate the lighter touch, especially after the campaigning seen so far since the race turned serious in December.  Romney already has seen his favorables decline during his internecine fight with Gingrich.  “Rombo” makes those attacks an issue itself for the campaign, and it might inoculate Santorum from the inevitable wave of ads coming in states like Michigan and Ohio.

Speaking of which, Santorum has taken leads in both states, although narrowly.  Rasmussen polled Michigan over the weekend and found Santorum up by three:

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, following his wins last week in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, has now jumped ahead of Mitt Romney in Michigan’s Republican Primary race.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters in Michigan shows Santorum with 35% of the vote to Romney’s 32%. Well behind are Texas Congressman Ron Paul with 13% and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 11%. Only one percent (1%) prefers some other candidate in the race, while eight percent (8%) are undecided.

The latest survey marks a significant 18-point boost for Santorum in the Wolverine State where he trailed Romney 38% to 17% less than two weeks ago just after the former Massachusetts governor’s big win in the Florida GOP Primary.  Gingrich has dropped 12 points from 23% support, while Paul earned 14% of the vote at that time. The Michigan Republican Primary is on February 28.

Santorum is the only candidate who leads the national GOP front-runner when the race is down to a two-man face-off in Michigan. Santorum bests Romney 49% to 37% in a one-on-one matchup, while Romney leads Gingrich 51% to 32% and Paul 63% to 25%.

Quinnipiac shows Santorum up by seven points in Ohio, a big change in their polling series in the state.  Those negative ads have taken their toll:

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shoots to the top among Ohio likely Republican primary voters with 36 percent, followed by 29 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich runs third with 20 percent, while Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul gets 9 percent. …

“For the first time, numerically more voters in Ohio view Romney unfavorably than favorably. His pattern in the earlier primary states has been to use his money advantage to run a large number of negative ads on his biggest challenger. But doing so now risks further increasing Romney’s own unfavorables as a side effect of throwing the mud himself. Yet, Romney may feel the need to raise questions about the lesser-known Santorum in the eyes of GOP voters.”

Romney gets a slightly negative 37 – 40 percent favorability rating from all Ohio registered voters, with a 61 – 25 percent positive from likely Republican primary voters. Santorum, whose overall favorability was 25 – 25 percent in January, is now 35 – 22 percent favorable among all voters and 62 – 7 percent favorable among likely Republican primary voters.

However, Santorum’s new frontrunner status means a lot more scrutiny — and not just from this point forward.  Michael Scherer at Time goes back to an October interview with evangelical blog Caffeinated Thoughts, and finds Santorum pledging to speak out against contraception as President:

One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, “Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.”

It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.

Again, I know most Presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These how profound impact on the health of our society.

That won’t win over too many voters who wouldn’t be voting Republican anyway, needless to say.  However, in practice, Santorum has avoided making any pronouncements on contraception.  Even in the current debate over the Obama-HHS mandate for employers’ insurance to fully cover all contraception costs, Santorum has emphatically refused to address it as a social-conservative issue; in our interview from CPAC, Santorum tells us explicitly that “it is not a social conservative issue, it is a religious liberty issue.”  He didn’t take the bait in the much-derided ABC debate in New Hampshire, either, when George Stephanopoulos insisted on spending more than ten minutes on the topic.

Still, it’s not helpful at all, and there may be more sound bites like this that will emerge over the next couple of weeks. Expect this to be a question raised in the next debate, especially in the context of the debate over the mandate — and we’ll have to see how Santorum handles it then.