Santorum is surging. If you're a fan of Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage, or simply have Googled "Santorum," that sentence has a whole different meaning.

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Santorum is surging.

If you’re a fan of Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage, or simply have Googled “Santorum,” that sentence has a whole different meaning.

In an act of political sabotage — ingenious or mean-spirited, depending on your views — Savage, a prominent gay activist, has worked for years to redefine Rick Santorum, a noted social conservative, as a byproduct of anal sex unprintable in a family newspaper.

That alternate definition — and not Santorum’s campaign website — comes up first on searches on Google, Yahoo and Bing, a result so ubiquitous and inflammatory that pundits have labeled it Santorum’s “Google problem.”

Iowa caucus-goers on Tuesday appeared to take no notice. Santorum, a former two-term Pennsylvania senator, was in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Yet, Santorum himself acknowledged the issue on his campaign blog last year. “Savage and his perverted sense of humor is the reason why my children cannot Google their father’s name,” he wrote.

“That just makes me sad,” said Elizabeth Santorum, his 20-year-old daughter and campaign staffer, told The Huffington Post on Monday. “It’s disappointing that people can be that mean.”

Savage launched a website, spreadingsantorum.com, in 2003 to redefine Santorum’s name after the senator described a landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing sodomy as a slippery slope toward legalized bigamy, polygamy and incest.

And, he told an Associated Press reporter, “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.”

The website since then has at least 13,000 inbound links and more than 41,800 “likes” on Facebook. It is owned by Index Publishing, publisher of The Stranger, where Savage is editorial director and part owner.

Savage delights at being a fly in Santorum’s ointment but said he’s “shocked” it is still the top search result for the politician. “There’s just a lot of people who don’t like Rick Santorum and the bigotry that he injects into the public discourse.”

Savage scoffed at the idea he was being “mean,” noting Santorum champions bans on same-sex couples marrying or adopting. “We go make a rude remark, and we’re the mean one?” Savage said. “This is how the powerless respond, with mockery and derision. It’s an asymmetrical response.”

Savage has a history of high jinks in Iowa, pleading guilty to voter fraud after volunteering for conservative Republican Gary Bauer’s presidential campaign in 2000. Savage wrote of licking doorknobs at campaign headquarters in order to infect Bauer with his flu.

Santorum’s campaign could bump the inflammatory definition down the Google search results, but it would take a focused effort to undo years of clicks and links to Savage’s website, said Ian Lurie, founder of portent.com, an Internet marketing firm in Seattle. “It’s a lot easier to keep something out of the rankings than to move it down later,” he said.

Santorum last year asked Google to remove Savage’s website from the search results. The company declined, telling Politico that Google doesn’t “remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines.”

In Iowa, the “Google problem” — if voters were even aware of it — could well have been seen as “a typical liberal attack” on social conservatives, who make up about 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers, said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political-science professor.

Savage said he once offered to remove the website if Santorum gave $10 million to a pro-gay marriage group, although he said he wasn’t serious. He also has turned down requests to start similar redefinition campaigns against conservative writer Ann Coulter and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The Santorum redefinition campaign already has accomplished what it intended, he said. “The goal was to get him to talk about it someday,” Savage said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605

or jmartin@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @jmartin206