At CNN debate, Rick Santorum skewered over 'bridge to nowhere'

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum took a pounding from rivals over his Senate record, during the CNN debate Wednesday. MItt Romney reminded voters of Santorum's vote for the so-called 'bridge to nowhere.'

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, responds to a point made by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum during a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, in Mesa, Ariz.

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.  

“I didn't follow all of that,” said Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, a comment that seemed aimed more at showing his lack of time in Washington than a lack of comprehension.  

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.