With recent wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick Santorum takes stage center in the Republican nomination race. What makes this latest ripple compelling is not so much what it says about Santorum, but what it says about the newly transformed conservative base that now embraces him. His poll numbers have surged, challenging Mitt Romney in Romney's home state of Michigan. A win there by Santorum on Tuesday would send the Republican contest once again off the rails.

With recent wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick Santorum takes stage center in the Republican nomination race. What makes this latest ripple compelling is not so much what it says about Santorum, but what it says about the newly transformed conservative base that now embraces him. His poll numbers have surged, challenging Mitt Romney in Romney's home state of Michigan. A win there by Santorum on Tuesday would send the Republican contest once again off the rails.

Political pundits across the spectrum are agape at this latest outcome. But perhaps they shouldn't be. Is it possible that Santorum is precisely the candidate that the GOP has been looking for, a candidate that mirrors the party's march to the hard right, a party increasingly known for its extreme rhetoric and uncompromising policies?

Consider Santorum's views, once judged to be on the fringe, and now melded into the GOP mainstream: "Cap it, cut it, freeze it, and block-grant it to the states," declares Santorum. His goal: cut $1 trillion a year from the federal budget for five years, no matter the resulting damage to the social safety net. He has long signaled his contempt for "government-run schools" (that would be public education). Or, put more broadly, his contempt for government in general. He calls for more domestic oil drilling, states unequivocally that global warming is a hoax and suggests that many using unemployment insurance are deliberately not looking for work. He believes that entitlements create a "narcotic of dependency" while ignoring the fact that such programs benefit, in the main, the elderly, the young, the disabled and working families who find themselves under water.

Santorum is opposed to gay marriage: "The definition of marriage has not ever, to my knowledge, included homosexuality." He called the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" tragic. He has also said that having a father in prison would be preferable to being raised by lesbian parents. Regarding working women: "The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness."

He believes that contraception is "not OK," describing it as a "license to do things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be."

His campaign often sounds like a religious crusade, and he has oft said he would not check his religion at the White House door.

For an indication that Santorum's views are no longer fringe, but mirror a major shift in Republican ideology, look only at a singular issue such as women's health, more specifically the right to choose. Conservatives, who took control of the Virginia governorship and the general assembly in 2010, are debating a stunning piece of legislation, Virginia Bill 462, which would require any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive ultrasound using a wand-like device that is inserted into the vagina.

Though deemed medically unnecessary, women have no opt-out choice other than to agree not to have an abortion, which is, of course, the intent of Bill 462. The image of the ultrasound would remain in a woman's medical file for seven years. The Virginia assembly is also proposing legislation that would define embryos as humans and criminalize their destruction as well as cutting state aid to poor women seeking abortions.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia has pointed out that 90 percent of all abortions occur when the fetus is no bigger than a grain of sand or a kidney bean, obviating the need for an internal ultrasound. In truth, his legislation represents an insidious attempt to once again circumvent Roe v. Wade. This from Republicans who ostensibly worship at the shrine of small government.

At a recent political rally Santorum said, "Obama's agenda is not about you. It's not about quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."

Indeed. Theology. Ideology. The Bible. And a blurring of the line that separates church from state, which is the driving force behind Bill 462.

Santorum refers to himself as the only true conservative in the Republican primary. And perhaps he's got it exactly right. His views are nicely aligned with those of the reconstituted GOP — few if any taxes, trickle-down economics, an acorn-size government, a disabled public education system, entitlements reduced to a mere whisper, affordable health care repealed, a dismantled EPA, Roe v. Wade overturned and women's health issues rigidly narrowed. In the aggregate, it's a chilling agenda constructed by ideologues.

All of this raises the question: are Americans, as they did in 2010, prepared to give the Republicans the opportunity to carry out their hard right agenda? To drive the nation once again into a deep ditch? We'll see.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.