Rick Santorum's endorsement regret: Why he backed Romney in '08

Rick Santorum is surging in Iowa just before the caucuses Tuesday, giving Mitt Romney a run for his money. Back in 2008, Santorum gave Romney something else: his support.

John Gress/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum campaigns at The Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, January 2, 2012.

Rick Santorum may be emerging as one of Mitt Romney's toughest rivals in Iowa, but back in 2008, he was something else: a supporter.

The former Pennsylvania Senator has been getting flak lately for his 2008 endorsement of Mr. Romney.

"Governor Romney is the candidate who will stand up for the conservative principles that we hold dear," he said in a press release when he announced his endorsement four years ago. And he told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that conservatives are "about traditional values and a traditional way of American life" and that Mitt Romney "understands that, it's not just in his head anymore, it's in his heart."

These are statements that are coming back to haunt Mr. Santorum now, as he tries to convince Republican voters that Romney isn't a true conservative – and that he, himself, is the only candidate who supports the social issues they care about.

When asked to explain the endorsement, the best response Santorum can offer is: It was politics. Essentially, his argument goes, he wanted anyone but John McCain to get the nomination. (The idea is, of course, analogous to many conservatives' attitude toward Romney today.) He didn't think Mike Huckabee could win it, and the only other alternative was Romney.

"I made, I hate to say it, a calculated political decision that Romney was the stronger horse and had a better chance to win Super Tuesday with the resources he had," Santorum said on Meet the Press Sunday. "I would have loved to have Mike Huckabee out there, but I made the political judgment, right or wrong, that [Romney] had the best chance to stop John McCain."

Santorum also noted that he wasn't exactly an early supporter – and that his endorsement didn't do much for his candidate.

“I endorsed him actually seven days before he dropped out of the race," he said.

Santorum's endorsement of Romney may seem like an odd choice now, given the positions that Santorum says he holds most important. (By 2008, Romney had already signed the Massachusetts health-care bill into law, had supported the court when it legalized gay marriage, and had in the past supported abortion rights.)

But though he's the only current candidate who backed Romney, other GOP candidates also had notable endorsements in 2008.

Rick Perry was one of the biggest endorsers of Rudy Giuliani – despite Mr. Giuliani's past positions on gay rights, gun control, and abortion.

"He's a results-oriented leader," the Texas governor said when he made the endorsement at Giuliani's side, adding that Giuliani was "best equipped to make the tough choices for a country at war." He also emphasized the importance of executive experience for a president – a theme he has continued in touting his own experience.

And Jon Huntsman Jr.'s very early endorsement of Mr. McCain also raised eyebrows.

Mr. Huntsman was governor of Utah and a Mormon, and Mitt Romney was the obvious endorsement choice – and had the backing of Huntsman's father, a prominent Utah businessman. Some people wondered whether the Huntsmans were hedging their bets, trying to have all the bases covered no matter who the eventual nominee was, or whether the governor was simply making a calculated decision about which administration offered him the best options.

Huntsman, who came out as a McCain supporter as early as 2006, cited a close friendship that the two had developed that was strengthened when they traveled to Iraq together to visit the troops. And in some ways he now seems like a logical heir to the "straight talk" McCain, refusing to toe the line on certain conservative issues.

Whatever the reason was, it's a decision Huntsman is probably pleased about now, since it allows him to avoid the awkward questions Santorum is now fielding.

As for Newt Gingrich? The former House speaker – and Romney's current rival in national polls – was shrewd, and never made a 2008 endorsement. He came close to running himself, before finally ruling it out in the fall of 2007. He was rumored at various times to be throwing support behind either Giuliani or Mr. Hucklebee, but never committed himself to a candidate.

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