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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Sunday Shows

Santorum's Surge Comes With Scrutiny

Now Atop the Polls, Santorum is Already Being Asked to Defend His Record

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

photo of Dan  Friedman
January 1, 2012

A late surge by Rick Santorum ahead of Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses will expose the former Pennsylvania senator to increased scrutiny, which could be problematic if he stumbles over explaining his positions. In fact, poor answers could sink Santorum as fast as he rose.

As early as this morning, when he hit the Sunday talk show circuit, Santorum was getting questions about Congressional earmarks, abortion rights and his support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008—all topics that could pose stumbling blocks in the days ahead, when voters make their decisions.

A solid finish Tuesday could propel Santorum in other primary states where delegates are actually at stake. But it could also hasten a repeat of the trajectory of other GOP presidential hopefuls who rose and quickly fell as alternatives to Romney.

 

Contributing to the chance of such a trajectory is Santorum’s vow Sunday to campaign in New Hampshire’s primary, where he has relatively little support and where his emphasis on social issues has less appeal than states like South Carolina.

Still, Santorum has momentum heading into Tuesday’s caucus, after a Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday showed him third in the race with the support of 15 percent of likely Caucus voters, trailing Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. In the last two days the survey was in the field, Santorum finished in second place with 21 percent, ahead of Paul.

After the rise and fall of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in polls, Santorum is Republican hopeful of the moment and attention will rise with a strong finish Tuesday.

Without his surge, Americans would probably not have seen Santorum struggle Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press to square his attacks this year on Romney with a 2008 endorsement in which he touted Romney’s conservative bona fides.

Santorum said he backed Romney only as the best alternative to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the time. “It was relative to McCain,” he said.

“I did not think he was the right person based on my experience and deep knowledge of his record,” Santorum said.

Santorum struggled to define other positions on Sunday as well. Asked about his support during a failed 2006 Senate reelection bid for exceptions to abortion restrictions in cases of rape and incest, Santorum said he has always “supported laws that move the ball forward” such a ban on partial-birth abortions. “That doesn’t mean that’s my position,” he said.

Pressed about having sought earmarks for his state, while in the Senate, Santorum said an increase in federal spending changed the situation. “When I left Congress, budgets began to explode,” he said.

Earmarks have never accounted for a significant portion of the federal budget, and an increase in federal spending was well underway before Santorum left Congress in 2007.

However, Santorum on Sunday continued to defend earmarking, arguing that, “there is a legitimate role for Congress to allocate resources.”

A Santorum surge will also highlight the candidate’s rare effort to campaign for president after being trounced in his last run for a lesser office. Santorum lost a 2006 reelection fight to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., by 19 percentage points.

Santorum alluded to that loss, along with his poor national poll numbers, in explaining why he has not received, or, he said, sought endorsements from former congressional colleagues.

“Who goes from losing in their last Senate race to winning the presidential nomination?” he said.

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