Democrats have an unexpected new foil in their effort to label the GOP as hostile to women: Rick Santorum.

After hammering away for a year at the message that Republicans are indifferent to women’s health and economic well-being, President Barack Obama’s party has been handed a nearly perfect political punching bag in the former Pennsylvania senator, whose down-the-line cultural conservatism is a major selling point in the 2012 primaries.

Gender issues have taken center stage in recent days as Santorum has made incendiary comments suggesting women not be allowed to serve in combat roles in the military (he later said he was concerned men would want to protect them). Santorum has also stood by his opposition to contraception, reiterating his position that it shouldn’t be covered by the national health-care law because it is “inexpensive.” While the ex-senator doesn’t favor outlawing birth control, he is personally opposed to it.

In another major hit this week, Santorum’s most prominent financial backer, Wyoming financier Foster Friess, joked on television that back in the day, women — he called them “gals” — would practice contraception by holding aspirin “between their knees.”

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