For most of the first year Rick Santorum was running for president, nobody said anything bad about him. Of course, no one said much of anything about him. But after his dead-heat victory over Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses and a trio of victories earlier this month in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, Santorum may be the last man standing in the contest to be the not-Romney Republican of 2012.
That's got people talking. Here's a sample of what they're saying and how it stands up to scrutiny:
-- "He's a consistent conservative."
Santorum is, in fact, a consistent conservative insofar as the term can be defined. Santorum's rankings with conservative groups on both fiscal and cultural issues were among the highest in Congress during his 16-year tenure (1991-2006). Especially if measured within the context of the political environment of Pennsylvania -- a state that didn't vote Republican for president the entire time he was in office.
An analysis published last week by the Weekly Standard found that "considering the state he was representing, one could certainly make the case that Santorum was the most fiscally conservative senator during his tenure." That reputation may be tarnished by his penchant for election-year pork barreling (see below).
Santorum also is an unambiguous social and religious conservative, so much so that liberals deride him as a potential theocrat. A lifelong Catholic, he has defended traditional marriage and opposed abortion both in and out of Congress. He led the U.S. Senate fight to ban what some call partial-birth abortion.
That's not to say he hasn't occasionally infuriated conservatives. Most famously in 2004, when he endorsed Arlen Specter, a liberal Republican who later switched parties, in a primary against a conservative favorite, former U.S. Rep. (now-U.S. Sen.) Pat Toomey.
-- "He's a big spender."
Much of the TV and radio advertising aimed at dampening enthusiasm for Santorum is based on the notion that he's a typically profligate member of Congress, spending taxpayer money faster than it can be collected.
To the extent that Santorum served in a period in which deficit spending exploded, that's fair enough. He did, as the pro-Romney Super PAC ads suggest, support raising the debt ceiling, earmarks -- even the Bridge to Nowhere. But so did lots of other Republicans at the time, many of them now Romney endorsers.
Santorum also voted for a balanced-budget amendment. And, since he left Congress, he has been a critic of bailouts for the banking, insurance and auto industries.
-- "He's a Washington insider."
"Rick Went to Washington AND HE NEVER CAME BACK," reads the banner of a Romney campaign e-mail. Santorum, his rivals argue, has a classic case of Potomac Fever, a guy who went off to D.C. determined to reform taxes and spending and ended up a part of the tax-and-spend culture.
Santorum was first elected to the House in 1990 at age 32. After losing his bid for re-election in 2006, he stayed in the D.C. area and became a consultant for Consol Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the nation. For his critics, that translates into 20-plus years of working in the Washington power structure. In Romney's case, it's made by someone who tried to get elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
-- "He's unelectable."
Some Republicans are wary about casting their lot with Santorum because they believe he couldn't beat President Obama in the general election. This group included about 98 percent of GOP primary voters until fairly recently, when a lot of them apparently decided the other challengers were even more unelectable.
The main source of concern seems to be his social conservatism. Santorum will repel moderates and fiscally conservative liberals by focusing on issues such as abortion and gay rights, according to this theory. Those making this argument the loudest are critics who have focused on abortion and gay rights more than Santorum has in the current campaign. Still, polls show many Republicans, even those who don't support him, think Romney has the best chance against Obama. A CNN poll released last week had Santorum leading Romney 34 percent to 32 percent nationally but also found that 68 percent of likely Republican voters believe Romney was most likely to win the nomination and 55 percent thought Romney had the best chance.
There is hard evidence to support either side of the Santorum electability question. He got clobbered (59 percent to 41 percent) the last time his name was on the ballot -- in 2006 in a matchup against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. It was the worst loss by an incumbent U.S. senator since 1980 and the worst ever by an incumbent Republican.
Before that, however, he beat a seven-term Democratic U.S. House member in 1990, despite being outspent 3-1, then retained the seat two years later in a district that had been redrawn to make him unelectable. When he was elected to the Senate in 1994 (a huge year nationally for Republicans), he knocked off a Democratic incumbent.
-- "He voted to let convicted felons vote."
This one is featured in the pro-Romney Super PAC ads, too, in which he appears in the same frame with Republican bete noire Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted the same way when they served together in the Senate.
It's true. In 2002, Santorum (and Clinton) supported an amendment that would have extended voting rights to prisoners who had finished their terms and no longer were on parole or probation. He was one of only three Republicans in the Senate to do so. The amendment was criticized as an infringement on states' rights, and it failed.
Santorum defended his position during a debate in South Carolina earlier this year.
Michigan, for the record, allows felons who have served their sentences to regain the right to vote.
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