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Santorum's Complicated Quest to Unite Conservatives Santorum's Complicated Quest to Unite Conservatives

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Campaign 2012

Santorum's Complicated Quest to Unite Conservatives

South Carolina pitch belies mixed record in Congress.

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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a town hall meeting, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in Sun City, S.C.(DAVID GOLDMAN/AP)

Rick Santorum is pitching himself in South Carolina as the principled, limited-government conservative that other conservatives should rally around in order to stop Mitt Romney and offer a sharp contrast to President Obama in November. But his quest is complicated by a fiscal record in Congress that once alienated the same types of conservatives he’s trying to attract now—and they’re talking about what they view as his transgressions.

By 2006, Santorum’s relations with conservative activists in his home state of Pennsylvania had deteriorated to the point where even some of his once-strongest supporters were convinced he had morphed into a squishy moderate. Faced with intraparty war amid an uphill Senate reelection campaign against Democrat Robert Casey, Santorum called a meeting with about 10 of the state’s leading activists. The idea was to unite in the face of a common enemy, and it seemed like a good one—until the meeting started.

 

According to interviews with five participants, the hour-long summit degenerated into a surreal screaming match, with a red-faced Santorum and a handful of the activists clashing repeatedly over earmarks and deficit spending—the same issues that are so important to Republican primary voters now.

Supporters of the former senator, including some of those who were at that 2006 meeting in Harrisburg, contend Santorum’s record is more complicated than it appears and blame some of the activists for escalating a tense situation. But if Santorum wants to revive his presidential campaign, he’ll have to handle the questions better than he did back then.

“The purpose of the meeting was reconciliation, but it couldn’t have turned out worse,” said Ryan Shafik, a Harrisburg-based GOP consultant who was one of the activists to meet with Santorum. “He yelled at virtually everyone.”

 

The meeting focused primarily on Santorum’s fiscal record in Congress. Among other things, he had backed the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, which was not paid for, and the infamous “bridge to nowhere” earmark for the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Both are infamous among fiscal conservatives as examples of excessive spending. “He’s not a limited-government conservative,” Shafik said of Santorum. “He grew government.”

Party hardliners also were angry that in 2004, Santorum endorsed centrist Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in his primary battle against conservative challenger Pat Toomey. The activists—including most of those gathered in Harrisburg—blamed him for Toomey’s razor-thin primary defeat and saw the endorsement decision as the epitome of compromise over principle.

“It was one of those moments where everyone said, ‘Wait a minute, what the heck?’ ” said Jason High, an activist who attended the meeting, referring to the Specter endorsement. “And then they started looking at his record more closely and realized it wasn’t all that good.”

High’s compatriots confronted Santorum during the meeting about the high level of spending levied by him and his GOP colleagues in Congress. According to some accounts, the former senator was unrepentant.

 

“He told us to our face deficit spending could be a good thing,” said High, who later went on to become a chief of staff in the state Senate. 

Shafik added that Santorum told them “he no longer thought the accumulation of all this debt was a bad thing for our country.”

That would be a far cry from Santorum’s talk as a presidential candidate of gutting government spending to bring America back into the black. But one ally in the room offered a less-damaging account of Santorum’s explanation. David Taylor, a Santorum supporter who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said Santorum defended his party’s spending by pointing out that it remained at only 20 percent of the country’s GDP, its historical average, while the deficit was just 5 percent.

“What Rick said was, ‘While this was not good, and yes we should do better, at least it’s in line with historic trends,’ ” Taylor said. “That’s what he was saying, all of which was true.”

Many of the activist leaders gathered said they were less bothered by Santorum’s policy defenses than by his tone. “He told me that the conservative movement in Pennsylvania began and ended with him,” High said. “There was no conservative movement until he got elected in 1994, and it would end if he lost to Bob Casey in 2006.” He added, “You cannot question Rick. He’s the alpha and omega of conservatism, and you don’t question that.”

Santorum's defenders concede he can come across as arrogant, but they say that's only because he’s so direct. “Rick Santorum is not someone who holds hands and coddles people in public or private session,” said Jeff Coleman, a Santorum backer and former state lawmaker who was at the 2006 meeting. “What you get from him is unbridled truth-telling that does not always make people feel happy or good about the encounter. Some people find that charming, other people use that as excuse to be critical of him.”

Taylor said in one dramatic moment, one of those in the room accused Santorum to his face of being arrogant. “In a degree of candor than I’m not sure everyone in that room deserved, the senator said, ‘Every day, I pray for humility,’ ” Taylor said.   

He and Coleman paint a portrait of a man who at the time was becoming a leader in the Senate and who had to consider the party’s interests nationwide. Taylor, for instance, said Santorum explained his Specter endorsement by touting the money it would make available to fund other Senate races because Specter, once past the primary, wouldn’t need much financial help to get reelected.

When Specter pulled off the primary win, “I knew at that point Rick would become responsible for all of Arlen’s inevitable future misdeeds,” Taylor said.

From the conservative standpoint, those misdeeds were monumental. Specter was a pivotal vote in passing Obama’s stimulus package in early 2009. In April of that year he switched parties and became a Democrat. He later went on to help his new party pass Obama’s health reform bill—the “Obamacare” law that outraged conservatives have vowed to repeal or kill in the courts.

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