Rick Santorum’s second-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses means he’s now a leading alternative to Mitt Romney — and a prime attack target for the front-runner.
A former Pennsylvania U.S. senator, Santorum, 53, campaigned across Iowa in a Ram pickup truck arguing he is the most consistent candidate on such issues as ending abortions and curbing government waste. It’s a message that caught fire in the final days of a fluid primary and propelled him into the front tier of candidates.
He finished just eight votes behind the well-funded and better-organized former Massachusetts governor, and also bested Ron Paul, the Texas House member who came in third and whose intensely loyal supporters will likely keep him in the race for future primaries.
“A track record is a pretty good indication of what you’re going to do in the future,” Santorum told a crowded coffee shop in Sioux City on Jan. 1.
Yet Santorum’s 16-year congressional career is the area his competitors already are mining for evidence to use against him, ranging from earmarked federal spending to an endorsement of Pennsylvania’s former senior Sen. Arlen Specter, who later switched parties to become a Democrat.
Santorum’s competitors are also likely to highlight votes he cast to benefit organized labor, including minimum-wage increases and preserving government wage-setting regulations, that have so far captured little attention on the campaign trail.
As he surged in the final polls, Republican rivals this week latched onto his record on legislative spending, which an online advertisement by Rick Perry says includes taxpayer money for a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and a teapot museum in North Carolina.
The Texas governor, who finished fifth in Iowa, has also accused Santorum of voting to lift the debt ceiling eight times, an issue that has more resonance today after the summer stand-off between the White House and House Republicans that led to the nation’s reduced credit rating.
Paul told CNN on Jan. 2 that Santorum “spends too much money. He wasn’t leading the charge to slash the budgets and vote against big government.”
Lawmakers weren’t required to make public their requests for targeted spending projects, called earmarks, until after Santorum lost in 2006.
Still, Perry’s ad claim that Santorum obtained more than $1 billion in earmarks during his time in office is likely legitimate, according to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks government waste.
For instance, Pennsylvania in 2005 received $483 million in earmarks for 872 projects, including $5.4 million for an igloo upgrade for an Army Depot and $5 million for a new visitor center at Gettysburg.
Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said Santorum had worked closely with Specter on earmarks and wasn’t known to condemn the practice. “It was not a huge issue during his tenure,” he said.
‘Proud of the Money’
Santorum defended himself on Dec. 29 on Fox News: “I’m proud of the money that I did set aside for things that were priorities in my state instead of having bureaucrats do that.”
The online advertisement released by Perry opens with images of pigs -- a play on so-called pork-barrel spending --and a clip of a Feb. 26, 2009, Santorum appearance on Fox News in which he says he is “very proud of all the earmarks” he inserted into legislation.
Santorum also wasn’t as reflexively anti-union as some Republicans, perhaps because he waged his first House campaign in 1990 in a Democratic-leaning, working-class congressional district in the Pittsburgh area.
In 1993, Santorum was one of 17 House Republicans who sided with most Democrats in backing a Clinton administration bill to protect striking employees from being permanently replaced by their employees.
Santorum’s Senate service shows a clear track record of supporting the Davis-Bacon Act, the federal law that requires government contractors to pay workers the local prevailing wage and a perennial target for elimination by the business community and anti-union Tea Party activists.
In 1996, Santorum voted in effect for an amendment by former Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy that said the 1931 law shouldn’t be repealed.
In 1999, the Senate accepted a Santorum amendment that said it should consider “reform” of Davis-Bacon rather than repeal. Later that year, Santorum was one of 15 Senate Republicans who sided with Democrats in rejecting an amendment that would have limited the application of Davis-Bacon in federal disaster areas.
He has a mixed record on federal minimum-wage laws, casting votes for increases and at other times against them. A pro-Santorum publication put out by the Pennsylvania Republican Party in 2006 noted “50 Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum.” Ranked at No. 23: Santorum “wrote legislation that would increase the national minimum wage.”
Although a supporter of most free-trade agreements, Santorum adopted a protectionist profile when it came to his home state’s steel industry.
In 2002, he supported President George W. Bush’s decision to impose tariffs on imported steel. In 1999, he was one of 42 senators who voted in effect for a bill he co-wrote that would have restricted imports of foreign steel.
Even with those pro-labor stances, Santorum wasn’t a consistent ally with the AFL-CIO; he had a 13 percent lifetime rating from the labor organization in 2006, his last year in office.
Jon Delano, a political analyst from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that low rating may give Santorum a shield against some attacks. Still, Delano said, the former senator would remain vulnerable to accusations that he’s “part of the Washington establishment.”
Santorum’s 2004 endorsement of Specter over a more conservative Republican primary opponent has also prompted opponents to question his credentials. Specter, a 30-year Senate veteran who served alongside Santorum in the chamber, lost his seat in the 2010 Democratic primary after he switched parties.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the son of the presidential candidate Ron Paul, referenced the endorsement Jan. 1 on CBS’s Face the Nation, saying Santorum is “a big-government type of moderate” and among the “fair-weather conservatives” in the Republican field.
Santorum, who lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Democrat Bob Casey by 18 points, has a lifetime score of 88 percent from the American Conservative Union.
Fellow presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich have higher scores, 100 and 90 percent, respectively, while Paul has a score of 84. Governors’ records, including Romney’s and Perry’s, aren’t scored by the group.
Still, Santorum does have conservative credentials to carry onto the campaign field.
As a senator, he helped write the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which among other things required recipients to begin working after receiving benefits for two years. In 2003, he introduced the “partial-birth” abortion ban that was signed into law and prohibits many late-term abortions. He has also spoken out against radical Islam.
Santorum was able to woo Iowans by promoting his “social conservative bona fides,” Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Des Moines-based Drake University who observed the candidate in person at two appearances, said in an interview. “He’s made the argument that he has served and suffered for family values. He almost projects a sense of martyrdom.”
A Catholic with a wife of 21 years and seven children, Santorum has been talking about his own family history on the campaign trail. He’s said his 3-year-old daughter, who has a fatal genetic disorder called Trisomy 18, inspired him to run.
In 1996, Karen Santorum gave birth to a baby with a fatal birth defect who died two hours later. The couple named him Gabriel and took the body home to show their children, according to a book by Karen Santorum called “Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum.”
In Newton, Iowa on Jan. 2, Santorum answered an audience question about the baby, saying, “We brought him home so our children could see him.”
While those positions can rally social conservatives, they could be less appealing to the independents who can participate in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary, said Jon Hurwitz, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“When people nationally take a harder look at his aggressive, hard-line position on family values, I suspect they will have some doubts, as well,” Hurwitz said.
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