WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum nearly won Iowa's caucuses with a message of fiscal conservatism and a muscular foreign policy. But even conservatives view Santorum's claims skeptically in light of his 16 years in Congress.
At times during the Iowa campaign, the former congressman and senator from Pennsylvania railed against front-runner Mitt Romney, portraying him as a closet moderate who doesn't present a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama.
"We need someone who has the bold, sharp contrasts, not just to win the election but to govern the country," said Santorum, who has emerged from Iowa as the conservative alternative to Romney. "Not just someone who is a little bit better."
As a House member for four years and a senator for 12, Santorum developed a reputation for his robust use of "earmarks," those measures slipped into expansive spending bills that provide money for home-state projects. Today, with the practice out of favor among conservatives bent on balancing the federal budget, Santorum opposes them but defends their use in the past.
Santorum also advocated big government programs in education and transportation and benefits for low-income people while in Congress.
He now rails against big government, saying he wants to cut $5 trillion in federal spending over five years. He wants to freeze defense spending for five years, along with money for social programs such as Medicaid and education. To spur the economy, he wants to scrap the corporate income tax for manufacturers and repeal a slew of government regulations imposed by Obama.
On social issues, Santorum opposes abortion rights and favors a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. He takes a hawkish line on foreign policy, saying he would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities unless they were opened for international arms inspectors.
"I've voted toughly over the years to cut spending and to rein in entitlements," he said recently.
Not always. Santorum, who rose to the No. 3 GOP leadership post in the Senate, supported the sweeping No Child Left Behind education reform bill that conservatives complain gave too much control to the federal government. He has said he regrets his vote.
In 2003, Santorum was a leading advocate for extending Medicare prescription drug benefits to seniors, a measure that conservative critics branded as a massive entitlement expansion that would run up the federal budget deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars. He now says the vote was a mistake.
Santorum also voted for a massive highway bill in 2005 that was stuffed with earmarks, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.
He fought food stamp cuts in 2005 and has pushed hard to get more federal money for Amtrak and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides fuel aid to the poor. Both are programs popular in Pennsylvania but considered by many conservatives to be examples of a bloated federal government.
Santorum worked to extend subsidies in 2005 for Pennsylvania's dairy farms. The $1 billion, two-year national program paid dairy farmers when milk prices dropped.
In 2002, Santorum went to bat for retired steelworkers. He pushed a plan to use some revenues from a Bush administration proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to pay some health and pension costs of about 600,000 retirees from bankrupt steel companies, a key constituency in Pennsylvania.
Santorum has already come under fire from his GOP rivals for his heavy use of earmarks, which are a favorite target for tea party activists who see them as wasteful.
While Santorum said he now supports an earmark ban because of how Congress has abused the process, he also said in a recent TV interview that "there is a legitimate role for Congress to allocate resources."
The conservative Club for Growth, a national group that holds sway among many Republicans, called Santorum a prolific "earmarker" who sought billions of dollars in wasteful spending.
"On spending, Santorum has a mixed record and showed clear signs of varying his votes based on the election calendar," the group said in its review of his time in Congress. "His record is plagued by the big-spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001-2006."
The club gave high marks to Santorum on taxes, noting that he voted for the Bush administration's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
As he vies for the GOP nomination, Santorum has tried to rally support from the religious and social conservatives who tend to dominate Republican caucuses and primaries in many states. Such support helped fuel his late surge in Iowa.
He's called himself the true conservative of the GOP presidential pack, citing his support for a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto to keep federal spending in line.
"The biggest issue in this campaign is going to be the size and scale of government," Santorum said Tuesday in Iowa.
In a congressional career that began with a House victory in 1990 and ended with a nearly 18-point loss in a Senate election in 2006, Santorum presented a more moderate face. Pennsylvania cannot be taken for granted by either party, and conservative candidates there often must appeal to more moderate voters to win.
Santorum campaigned in Pennsylvania as a "compassionate conservative" — a theme George W. Bush used in his presidential campaign — and boasted about his ability to bring home federal money.
On social issues such as abortion and gay rights, Santorum has held firmer to the conservative line.
He favors a constitutional abortion ban and opposes abortion even in cases of rape. In Congress, he successfully pushed a bill to ban a late-term abortion procedure. He's said one of the first steps he'd take as president would be to ban federal funding for abortion.
But Santorum has faced questions over remarks he made during the height of his 1996 re-election race supportive of a ban on abortions that included exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. He recently said the measure was a compromise that he supported because it represented a positive step towards a wider ban.
On health care, Santorum wants to repeal Obama's sweeping overhaul package. He favors a market-based approach, saying stronger government control of health care will inevitably lead to bureaucrats making decisions about who gets care.
He's also drawn a hard line on foreign policy and terrorism, saying America should act as a powerful moral force across the globe to fight for freedom. He's accused Obama of engaging and coddling rather than confronting the nation's enemies.
He blames Obama for not doing more to prevent the Iranian government from building a nuclear weapon, saying Obama has risked turning the U.S. into a "paper tiger." Santorum recently called Obama's policy toward radical Islamists "nothing but appeasement."
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