Just in case his wife doesn’t take Sarah Palin up on her offer, I’ll say it: Rick Santorum is a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.

The former Pennsylvania senator and wannabe president was bad-mouthing Palin the other day for being a no-show at CPAC, the annual conservative gathering and showcase for presidential hopefuls.

“I wouldn’t have turned it down,” Santorum said of Palin’s decision not to attend, “but I don’t live in Alaska, right, and I’m not the mother to all these kids, and I don’t have other responsibilities like she has.”

All these kids? Santorum has seven, which by my count makes him two kids busier than Palin.

Oh, wait, I guess not. He’s father to all these kids, not mother.

And we know who stays home with the kids.

Back during the 2008 campaign, I ventured onto this treacherous territory, writing about Palin’s decision to enter the vice presidential campaign with an infant, one with special needs at that.

“I don’t question whether Palin can pull off the most impressive juggling act in the history of working moms, balancing, as she told People magazine, BlackBerry and breast pump,” I wrote. “But I do wonder — somewhat to my astonishment — why she’d choose to, and I suspect many mothers feel the same. Looking over my female friends — educated and accomplished — it is hard to think of one who has not trimmed her career sails to accommodate family life.”

Here’s the distinction: It is one thing to acknowledge that women tend to feel, as I put it, more of a “homeward tug” than their husbands in juggling work and family life. It is a different thing, as Santorum did, to presume it in any individual case — to assume that being “mother to all these kids” will keep a woman stuck at home.

The first is reality, as much as you can debate whether this is social construct or genetically driven. The second is simple sexism.

In fairness to Santorum, his digs at Palin were not limited to her motherhood. He also slammed her for raking in the big bucks rather than hanging with the right wing.

“I have a feeling that she has some demands on her time, and a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them,” Santorum sniped in an interview with S.E. Cupp, who hosts an online radio show on Glenn Beck’s website.

Palin slapped back at her fellow Fox News commentator on Sean Hannity’s show. “Just because I’m a mom, that does not mean that I didn’t want to be there,” Palin said. “I’m the proud mother of five. My kids don’t hold me back from attending a conference.”

Palin expressed some sympathy with Santorum, saying, “I think the reports were much worse than what he really said. I think some things maybe were taken out of context.”

Then she went in for the kill: “I will not call him the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal that perhaps others would want to call him. I’ll let his wife call him that.”

Touché, governor. Senator: She told you not to mess with Mama Grizzlies, stay-at-home or otherwise.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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