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Beauty Shop: Santorum's Surge, Rihanna's Remix


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's our latest Black History Month memoir and we'll hear about a 15 year old honor student who went on to become the youngest member of New York's Black Panther party. We'll hear about his very interesting life in just a few minutes.

But first, we decided to head into the Beauty Shop. That's where we go to get a fresh cut on the week's news.

Rick Santorum has been talking a lot about women lately, so we decided to see what the ladies have to say about him. We'll also ask about those new collaborations between the pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna three years after he was convicted of violently assaulting her.

And sitting in their chairs for a new do this week are Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at the website The Wise Latina Club. Danielle Belton is author of the pop culture and politics blog The Black Snob. And Michelle Bernard is the president and CEO of the independent free market think tank the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy.

We were all lucky enough to get them all here in our Washington, D.C. studio together, so welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.


MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having us, Michel.


MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the latest presidential candidate in the spotlight. Now, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had been there all along, but somehow he's surged to the front of the pack. He's now leading former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the latest polls, and according to the recent Gallup tracking poll, he also has a 10 point lead over Mr. Romney among Republican women.

Now, that might surprise some people because some of his comments about contraception and some reproductive health issues have been raising eyebrows.

Here he is talking about prenatal screening for pregnant women. Here it is.

RICK SANTORUM: They require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America. Why? Because it saves money. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions, and therefore less care that has to be done.

MARTIN: And this was a comment made last weekend, just in case you were wondering because some people are also looking back at speeches that he made a couple of years ago. This was just last weekend, just for those who are interested.

So I have to ask each of you, you know, what you make of his appeal, why he's surging to the head of the pack among current polls and what you think that the future is and what impact he might have on the race down the line.

So we'll start with you, Mary Kate Cary.

CARY: I would say that the polls I saw show him with a 10 point deficit amongst women, at least compared to Romney, and I think that's going to be a problem for him given that, in 2008, 53 percent of the electorate was women. So I think he's got some troubled times ahead of him if he continues with social issues.

Not every voter is willing to switch their vote on social issues, but just about every voter will be open to an economic appeal and I think we've got an economic crisis going on. I think if he was smart he'd stick with economic issues.

Mitt Romney's releasing a new tax reform proposal today and I think that's going to put tremendous pressure on Santorum to respond and get back onto the economy where the votes are.

MARTIN: Viviana, it is interesting, though, that Mitt Romney - this would seem to be his year because he's touting his credentials as a businessman. He's touting his credentials as the person people may remember that in the Salt Lake City Olympics he was credited with taking a situation that had been a disaster and turning it around and getting the Olympics kind of on budget and on time and very well done. And yet he's struggling. This would seem to be his year. Why do you think that is?

HURTADO: It's interesting you say that, Michel, because Mitt Romney has often been dubbed a great turnaround artist, but one thing he's not been able to turn around - and it's actually dogged him - is this impression that he's just not a real conservative. He's not conservative enough and that's where Santorum has been incredibly successful in hitting that.

I think what a lot of women are feeling and Mary Kate was alluding with the polls that she was able to read is that there is this appeal among the very socially conservative voters about his beliefs. But for a lot of women, they're thinking, OK, where is the rub between these beliefs and if you have the power to enforce your beliefs on me?

And for a lot of women, as Mary Kate was saying, we are leaders in our families, in our communities. We've seen that we've had to lead out of the man session, this last recession, and we're worried about jobs, about the economy, about education and the future for our children, about health care and about care for our elderly parents. I've certainly seen that with another swing vote that's developing very quickly among the Latina mommies or the football mommies who, very similar to soccer moms and women voters, are very worried about practical issues.

They care about morals and their families, but they also want to know - how is business going to get accomplished?

MARTIN: They are women, Viviana.


MARTIN: They're not like women. They are.

HURTADO: Right, right, right, right.

MARTIN: Other women, not all Latinas. Right?

HURTADO: I got off a flight from L.A. not that long ago. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: You're on a roll. So, Danielle, what about you? What are your thoughts about this?

BELTON: Well, I mean, Santorum is just really trying to find a wedge to drive between Romney's - found Romney's weakness. A lot of social conservatives are unsure about him. A lot of evangelicals are uncomfortable with his faith, so he's hitting as hard as he can with the faith-based issues, which Santorum feels really strong about.

It's disturbing for me because I always feel like he's talking about getting government out of your life except when it comes to my uterus. I wish - you know, I mean, if only they paid as much attention to what goes on with sperm as they do with eggs, I mean - my goodness, self-gratification would be against the law, apparently.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

BELTON: So I - because I mean - it's also a sin. It's also a sin, yet it's like there's such a preoccupation with what goes on, you know, with my development issues there, so...

MARTIN: Let me just - we were talking about whether Santorum is up or down in the polls. I'll just - there may be other polls and, in fact, it wouldn't shock me that there are other polls giving other information, but the Gallup tracking poll says that Santorum support among women increased by 12 points over the last week, vaulting him into a 10 point lead among women. In fact, Santorum's support among women in the latest Gallup poll is stronger than his support among men in the week of February 13th through 19th, according to Gallup's presidential primary tracking poll of registered Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents. Santorum led Romney 34 percent to 29 percent among men, 36 percent to 26 percent among women.

Michelle Bernard, one of those independent-leaning - one of those independent conservatives, are you surprised by this?

MICHELLE BERNARD: If you take out labels, I am completely surprised by this because I would think - venture to guess that most women would hear what Rick Santorum is saying about women's reproductive rights and be absolutely horrified.

But that being said, if you go back and you say - and this is purely anecdotal. I'm not the Gallup tracking poll. But if you go back and you talk to women who are single issue voters, if you talk to what we call the quote, unquote, "red state feminists" that emerged during the McCain-Palin candidacy in 2008, those women love Rick Santorum.

Abortion is the only issue that matters to them. They feel that he speaks to them, and at least in the Republican Party where we're in a primary season, those are the voters that really matter and he is preaching to the choir when he speaks to these women.

Now, the difference is - let's assume against all odds that Rick Santorum becomes the Republican presidential nominee. When you get to a general election, we have what we call in this country a huge gender gap, meaning that most women predominantly vote Democratic over Republican. If you look at those women, whether they be self-identified Democrats or self-identified independents, I would venture to guess that those women will look at a Rick Santorum and say, absolutely not. This is not the person I want to lead the nation.

MARTIN: And when you say, against all odds, why do you put it that way? You said, if, against all odds, Rick Santorum becomes the GOP nominee, then - you know, then do the happy dance over at the Obama White House because he's not going to get it. Why do you say, against all odds?

BERNARD: Well, because conventional wisdom, regardless of the fact that we keep seeing that, during this Republican primary that it's anybody but Mitt Romney, the bottom line is I agree with Mary Kate in the sense that the election, I believe, a few months from now is going to boil down to either demographics or economics. It is not going to be social issues. People are looking for jobs. They are looking for ways to feed their families and clothe their children and this is really just not going to matter.

MARTIN: I'm seeing a lot of people nodding, yes, here. So we're going to move on to another rather surprising development, I would say. And we're having our visit to the Beauty Shop and we're talking with a panel of women commentators and getting a fresh cut on the week's news with Michelle Bernard - that's who was speaking just now - Danielle Belton, Viviana Hurtado and Mary Kate Cary.

Chris Brown and Rihanna, back together in song. Now, honestly, I have to say, when I first heard this, I did not believe this. When I first heard about this story, I thought it was one of those hoaxes. And I was going to look it up on Snoops, to be sure - or Snopes, rather - to see if it was one of those legends; that people were just trying to pull my leg, just to see if I would bite.

But I heard it for myself. Almost three years after Brown was convicted of assault, they - both of them leaked remixes of songs featuring each other, and one of them is quite provocative, so we will not be playing the...

BELTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...adult mix. We will not be. It's called - this is Rihanna's "Birthday Cake Remix."


CHRIS BROWN, RIHANNA: (Singing) Give it to her in the worst way. Can't wait to blow the candles out. I want to have cake, cake, cake, cake, cake, cake...

MARTIN: And I have to admit, it's a hot beat, OK? I have to admit that and, of course, it is in the - there's a double entendre - or some double entendres there, in the best tradition of the blues or every other pop culture. But there are some not entendres there, that we aren't going to play.

Danielle, I've got to ask you about this. I mean, because critics are saying, you know, Rihanna made this big press tour after she was - pictures of her being very badly, you know, beaten, were leaked. Now, they shouldn't have been leaked, but they were. And people saw how badly she was injured.

Chris Brown was convicted of this. He has served his sentence, and he's still on probation.

BELTON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: He's still on probation. What do you - what's going on here?

BELTON: Well, I mean, to me, it was amazing in the sense that they must have either rekindled the relationship or become friends again - because it makes no sense from a business standpoint. The guy still has a really bad temper. He's still on probation. He's prone to homophobic rants on Twitter. He's still rather immature. He's still going through it.

And so, for her, her career's going great. She's super successful. She's just come off a great tour. She's selling tons of albums. I don't understand why she'd take this - and her people would take such a huge risk, where there's a good chance that he'll mess up again and it'll look bad on her. Because reality is, even though he's the one who abused her and she was the victim, we don't live in a fair society. She's going to be the one where people will go, well, she should have known better - when he messes up again.

MARTIN: Or perhaps there was more to this story to begin with...


MARTIN: ...than the pop princess, you know, victimization out of nowhere. I mean, maybe there was more to the story to begin with.

BERNARD: Well, even if there was more - I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Michelle.

BERNARD: But even if there was more to the story, he still struck her.


BERNARD: You know, from my perspective...

MARTIN: Not just once, but...

BERNARD: I mean, he badly beat her. And I just - I have to tell you, I just think that - I was stunned when I heard it, and I actually thought it was a joke. I called my 14-year-old niece, who told me that. And my 14-year-old niece told me that it was true. And then she said to me, and the song isn't even that good.

You know, but that's not the point; that domestic violence is a huge problem. She's a young, beautiful woman. She is a role model to hundreds of thousands of women of all races across the country and, frankly, across the world. And she's basically saying, it's OK to beat me up, and I'll go and sing another song with you.

MARTIN: Well, Viviana, you wrote - you blogged about this because he had - Chris Brown had a couple of performances at the Grammys, And some people were saying OK, once, I can see - because, you know, he served his sentence. But, you know, why did he have to have - what - two or three bites of the apple? So what's this about? What - so - but there are those who say look, if Rihanna can forgive Chris Brown, why can't we?

HURTADO: And I have to say...

MARTIN: And you say...

HURTADO: And I say - I say, you might be able to forgive, but you shouldn't forget. And it's important, given what Michelle just said about how Rihanna is a role model to hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of girls around the world.

But I just also want to back up and say that I disagree with what Danielle said about how it makes no business sense. That's one of the things that just - I was in shock and awe as I watched the Grammys - is, this is a whole industry, actually, that's built around being outrageous, being salacious. Look, we're talking about this and, as you noted - that Chris Brown, at the Grammys, got nominated and was voted Best R&B...

BERNARD: He performed. Yeah.

HURTADO: Well, no. That he was voted and won an award that has nothing to do with the Grammys. Go ahead. We live in America. It's a free country. But that the Grammys chose him not once, but twice to perform, sends a really powerful message about our values, about domestic violence. We're getting lectured by the Grammy president about piracy, and you're inviting Chris Brown not once, but twice - with women in teeny, tiny, little outfits and in provocative, you know, dances around him. What kind of message is this sending?

And so I think this fits into this. There's a multimillion-dollar industry propping up these people. And whatever it takes to make more profits, is how I see this.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what do you say about this? I understand that you said Chris Brown is - his songs are banned in your house, but...

CARY: Yeah. We're having a boycott at our house.

MARTIN: Boycott. But what about Rihanna?

BELTON: Me, too.

CARY: Same, same.

MARTIN: You, too?

CARY: Both of them.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard says - what about Rihanna?

BERNARD: I'm a graduate of the University of Virginia, which is consumed right now with the Yeardley Love murder trial. And my girls are watching this very closely, and I think you've got to send the message to, you know, teenage girls. You know, they get one time. If it ever happens, you never talk to him again. You can forgive him in your heart, but you do not go back to a guy who hits you. And that's what happened with Yeardley Love, and I think it's very concerning about Rihanna.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, Yeardley Love is the young woman - a lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, who died in 2010 after an altercation with her former boyfriend. And that story has been consuming much of the Washington, D.C., area.

Danielle Belton - on this, you say...

BELTON: I was going to add something to what Viviana said. It makes sense for Chris Brown, and the people who invested in him, for her to do a song with him. It makes incredible sense. The industry has a lot riding on him. It always did. They want to make their money back. He has a solid fan base. It helps him to have her forgive him and make up.

It doesn't help her any because she loses credibility with people who stood by her for when she was beat. She loses credibility with domestic violence advocates. And if he messes up again - whether getting in trouble with the law, or attacks her again - she will find the sympathy that she got the first time around, she won't get because the way people view domestic violence victims. They always want to pretend like there's culpability; like, somehow, you deserve to be beat.

MARTIN: Well, I think it's worth noting that Chris Brown is still on probation for assaulting Rihanna but last year, a stay-away order was dropped by a judge. You might remember that he was not allowed to come within a certain distance of her. But Rihanna and the prosecutors said that they did not mind if the judge dropped that order because he had gone through certain steps.

Now, I'm going to be very interested to see how this whole thing plays out, But I do think it's another sign that these pop culture individuals are not living in isolation; that people are watching everything that they do.

Finally, before we let you go, one more topic. We don't really have time to talk about it, but there was a study in the Wall Street Journal, a Wall Street Journal article that talked about the fact that there are actually some physical symptoms related to certain items. Like, you can actually have, like, injuries related to certain fashion items. And I will not talk about my handbag, which is noted for - listen, it's the crayons. I don't care what anybody says. It's the crayons.

HURTADO: And the juice boxes.

MARTIN: And the juice boxes in my bag. But what sacrifices are you making for fashion, Mary Kate?

CARY: Well, I strapped on my stiletto heels just for this occasion, ladies, and...

MARTIN: You're a brave woman.

CARY: Thank you. But I did leave the clip-on earrings at home. I don't think they make those anymore. Those are the instruments of torture.

MARTIN: Those are heavy. Michelle, I noticed that you're rocking - oh, no. You're not rocking one of your cinch belts today.


MARTIN: You're not rocking one of your cinch belts today. I understand that they're not quite like corsetry, but what sacrifices are you making for fashion?

BERNARD: I got to tell you, it's the handbag. The bigger, the better.

MARTIN: Danielle?

BELTON: That would be shape wear.

MARTIN: OK. Viviana?

HURTADO: I agree and I just want to say that I showed up here in my most ridiculous outfit with everything that was in that article on and I was late and I had to take it all off to make it here on time.

MARTIN: Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club. Danielle Belton is The Black Snob. She blogs on her website about pop culture and politics. Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. And Mary Kate Cary - you know her. Former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. All here in Washington, D.C.

Ladies, thank you.

CARY: Great to be here.

BELTON: Thank you.

HURTADO: Thank you.

BERNARD: Looking good, ladies.


MARTIN: Still to come, meet Jamal Joseph on the street and you would not be surprised to find out that he is a professor at Columbia University and a writer and director, but you might be surprised to find out that he was the youngest Black Panther in New York, and paid a heavy price for it.

JAMAL JOSEPH: The real internal strength of what it was to be a young Panther happened when I was in Rikers Island alone.

MARTIN: Jamal Joseph tells us more about "Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention." And it's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: Arizona hosts the final GOP presidential debate before Super Tuesday. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are battling for the lead to win their party's nomination, but Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul haven't thrown in the towel. Who's making moves and who's stuck in a rut? We'll bring you up to date next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.