There’s a reason the vast majority of senators who run for president don’t succeed: They can’t explain themselves without getting lost in the weeds of Congress-speak.
Barack Obama, of course, is a notable exception. Maybe that’s because he was a senator for only four years before becoming president. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has been flying high lately in Republican primary polls, may just have come down to earth in Wednesday night’s Republican debate in Mesa, Ariz. Over the two hours, he was pummeled by Mitt Romney and Ron Paul over positions and votes he took during his 12 years in the Senate that conflict with current-day conservatism.
The debate was the last before next Tuesday’s crucial primaries in Michigan and Arizona, followed by the 10 contests on Super Tuesday, March 6. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney are neck and neck in Michigan, Romney’s home state and a key test of his ability to appeal to voters in the industrial heartland.
In the attacks on Santorum, earmarks – special projects for the home state or district – were Exhibit A. Santorum tried to explain that there were good earmarks and bad earmarks, launching into a discussion of the V-22 Osprey military aircraft and his efforts to save the program.
In highlighting a “good earmark” – federal money for security at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics – Romney served up the most memorable barb of the evening: “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere,” he said to Santorum.
Santorum apologized for his 2001 vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, then-President Bush’s signature education program, which some conservatives oppose. Santorum said he opposed it at the time but voted for it anyway.
“I have to admit I voted for that,” Santorum said. “It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake.”
The audience booed.
Romney and Congressman Paul both scolded Santorum for voting to fund Planned Parenthood, which the Pennsylvanian explained was included in a large appropriations bill that also funded the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services. But no matter, explaining a funding bill is usually a no-win proposition for a former-senator-turned-presidential-candidate.
Romney also steered Santorum into a byzantine explanation of why he supported fellow Sen. Arlen Specter, then a moderate Republican, in his 2004 primary against conservative Pat Toomey. In short, Santorum explained, he was trying to provide cover for expected conservative US Supreme Court nominees whom Senator Specter had promised to support as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But later, Specter became a Democrat and provided the crucial 60th vote for Obama’s health-care reform. Ouch.
None of these individually is a major blight on Santorum’s background, but taken together, they paint him as an inconsistent conservative. At the debate, he appeared defensive and off his game. The anticipated discussion of conservative social views, for which Santorum is best known – most recently, on birth control and women in the military – didn’t produce much in the way of fireworks, as the candidates largely agree. But for a national audience looking ahead to the general election, it wasn’t the best advertisement for a Republican Party looking to attract independent voters to its nominee in November.
The other candidate on stage at the Mesa Arts Center was Newt Gingrich, who once filled Santorum’s role as the “not Romney” candidate. Former Speaker Gingrich came prepared to talk ideas, especially on energy, and seemed the happy warrior, as he seeks to post a win or two on Super Tuesday – particularly in his home state of Georgia. It was a full hour into the debate before he challenged a question from moderator John King of CNN.
But with the spotlight focused squarely on the Rick-versus-Mitt show, there was little room for Gingrich to break out of his latest slump in the national polls.