It’s been an implicit part of the rules of engagement in the GOP presidential race that no candidate can be criticized for being too conservative, particularly by Mitt Romney. Thus Rick Perry drew fire not for flirting with secession and nullification theories, or for complaining about “lucky ducky” poor folks who didn’t pay taxes–but for expressing sympathy for the children of undocumented workers. Similarly, Newt Gingrich never got attacked for his anti-Muslim demagoguery or his regular descriptions of the president as a “secular-socialist”–but for once professing belief in the climate change “hoax” and criticizing Ronald Reagan.

The game has continued up until now with Rick Santorum, whose wacky views on cultural issues have never drawn a breath of complaint from Romney or other Republicans. No, instead they want to talk about Rick’s fiscal “liberalism.”

That’s why it’s very interesting today that two of Mitt’s highest-profile enablers, Matt Drudge and Jennifer Rubin, seem to have broken the seal on a whole new line of attack–on Santorum’s faith-based zaniness.

As I write this, the top of the Drudge Report has one of those screaming headline “stories” about Santorum’s “Satan Warning”–along with excerpts from the 2008 Ave Maria speech that us liberals have been discussing for the last several days. Drudge very specifically includes a quote from Santorum’s disparagement of mainline Protestants as having left “the world of Christianity.”

Meanwhile, WaPo blogger Rubin has a long, inflammatory post calling Santorum a “reactionary”–not a term you hear often in the Right Blogosphere these days–for talking about theology and contraception and in general “seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion.”

Now perhaps these are unrelated developments, and Drudge and Rubin are not acting as surrogates for Romney in this case. But I really doubt either of them would launch this particular type of attack on Santorum if they thought Team Mitt would disapprove. Could be that Romney is rattled enough by the Santorum Surge, and concerned enough about what might happen in MI and AZ next Tuesday, that he’s approved a Second Front designed to undermine support for Rick in those segments of the Republican electorate where loose talk about Satan and “un-Christian” mainline Protestants and contraception really isn’t that welcome.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.