Bloomberg News

Santorum Targeted for Attacks on His Record in Republican Debate

February 28, 2012

(For more on the campaign, ELECT.)

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney sparred over spending, federal bailouts and taxes in a debate last night, with the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination competing to define themselves as the race’s most authentic conservative.

Romney hammered Santorum for voting as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania for an Alaska road project that came to symbolize the congressional earmarking process used by lawmakers to funnel tax dollars to pet programs.

Santorum responded that Romney had asked for earmarks himself as governor of Massachusetts and when he ran the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere,” Romney shot back, referring to the Alaska project.

Santorum was targeted throughout the debate in Mesa, Arizona, as he shared the stage with rivals for the first time since he unseated Romney atop national polls of the Republican race. Joining Romney in the attack on Santorum -- which included questions about the anti-abortion stances that have defined his career -- was U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

‘Fake’ Charge

Paul stood by a campaign ad calling Santorum “a fake” for claiming to be a fiscal conservative. “I find it really fascinating that, when people are running for office, they’re really fiscally conservative,” Paul said. “When they’re in office, they do something different.”

Paul chided Santorum for voting for programs he now wants to repeal, including the education law known as No Child Left Behind.

Calling that vote “a mistake,” Santorum said he wanted to “take one for the team” and support then-President George W. Bush, who viewed the education overhaul as a signature achievement for his Republican administration.

“That’s what the problem is in Washington,” replied Paul. “I think the obligation of all of us should be the oath of office, it shouldn’t be the oath to the party.”

Santorum also expressed regret about voting for “large appropriations bills” when he didn’t support the provisions in the measures.

Approaching Primaries

The candidates were vying to gain an edge before the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan. The debate -- which included former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- also offered the last chance for direct exchanges before Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states hold contests that should play a major role in determining who secures the Republican nomination.

The back-and-forth between Santorum and Romney in what was the campaign’s 20th debate underscored the race’s changed dynamics. Since the candidates last squared off almost a month ago in Florida, victories by Santorum in Feb. 7 contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri sparked his surge in the national polls.

The most recent statewide surveys show Romney leading in Arizona and running neck and neck with Santorum in Michigan, Romney’s birthplace.

An NBC/Marist survey of likely voters in Michigan’s Republican primary released yesterday shows the two in a virtual tie: Romney has 37 percent support and Santorum 35 percent, with the margin of error plus-or-minus 3.7 points.

Bailout Issue

With the government bailout of Michigan’s dominant automobile industry a top issue in the state, Santorum defended his opposition to the federal aid by saying that, unlike Romney, he was consistent in also disagreeing with the $700 billion financial industry rescue.

“He supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street -- was all for it -- and then when it came to the auto workers and the folks in Detroit, he said no,” Santorum said. “I believe in markets, not just when they’re convenient for me.”

Romney dismissed the criticism -- “Nice try,” he told Santorum -- and argued he had merely opposed writing car companies a large check, rewarding labor unions that had helped weaken them without seeking needed changes to get the industry back on its feet.

Romney’s proposed alternative was a managed bankruptcy to allow the car companies to restructure. Economists, industry specialists and other politicians in both parties say the companies would have had to close without the government help because no private entity was willing to provide the funds to get them through a re-organization.

Romney Tax Plan

While Santorum often steers the political conversation toward social issues such as his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, Romney has tried to focus on the economy. Just hours before last night’s debate, he released a more detailed tax plan, calling for a 20 percent across-the-board cut in individual income tax rates.

Romney’s proposal would lower the top tax rate to 28 percent for individuals from 35 percent now while also limiting the deductions, exemptions and credits that are now available to higher-income Americans.

“We are going to cut back on that so we make sure the top 1 percent keeps paying, paying the current share they’re paying or more,” Romney said in Chandler, Arizona, before the debate. “We want middle-income Americans to be the place we focus our help.”

‘Occupy’ Rhetoric

Santorum took aim at the plan, charging Romney with “adopting the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ rhetoric.”

“I’m not going to adopt that rhetoric,” Santorum said. “We’re not raising taxes on anybody.”

Romney said Santorum was offering “misrepresentations” and said he was in favor of cutting taxes for everyone. His campaign hasn’t specified how deductions and other tax breaks for high-income taxpayers would be limited.

Santorum’s abortion record was questioned as Romney and Paul attacked him for helping fund Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a group that provides abortion services, by supporting spending bills that included money for the organization.

Santorum vowed not to sign any spending bill that appropriated money to Planned Parenthood if he became president. He also pointed to legislation he authored that provided money for abstinence education programs.

That failed to satisfy Paul. “The federal government shouldn’t even be spending money on abstinence,” he said. “I don’t see that in the Constitution.”

Arlen Specter

Santorum frequently assails Romney for backing, as governor, a Massachusetts law similar to the federal health-care overhaul President Barack Obama pushed through Congress in 2010. That issue propelled the debate into an arcane political detour, with Romney blaming Santorum for passage of the Obama bill because, six years earlier, he had backed his then-Senate Republican colleague, Arlen Specter, in a Pennsylvania primary fight over a more conservative rival.

“If you had said ‘no’ to Arlen Specter, we would not have had Obamacare. So don’t look at me; take a look in the mirror,” Romney said.

Santorum responded that he supported Specter in the 2004 primary because Specter promised to back Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. Specter switched parties in 2009 and provided a crucial vote for the health-care overhaul.

Santorum and Romney shouted at each other over the matter, fingers wagging, until moderator John King of CNN intervened.

Paul, as he has in previous debates, distinguished his candidacy by calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from conflict zones across the world.

Gingrich, whose debate appearances have fueled his campaign, had a relatively quiet presence on the stage, taking few shots at his rivals or King.

Still, he showed no signs of unhappiness with his diminished status in the race. When asked for one word that defined him, Gingrich responded “cheerful.”

Paul picked “consistent.” Romney offered “resolute.” Santorum chose “courage.”

--With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Mesa, Arizona. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Mesa, Arizona, at llerer@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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