Santorum goes full circle

First of an occasional series

PITTSBURGH — When Sen. Rick Santorum was first elected to Congress 16 years ago, he was among the firebrand conservatives who mapped out the Republican Revolution to slash government spending and end political careerism in Washington.

Today, the Pennsylvanian is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. But the Republican Revolution is over, and he faces one of the toughest re-election campaigns in the country.

Typical of his campaigning these days was a stop earlier this month at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where he boasted to local reporters about how he’d fetched $500,000 from federal taxpayers to build one of the most luxurious polar-bear exhibits outside Arctic climes.

“They’re building underwater tunnels so you’re actually under water,” Mr. Santorum told his awe-struck children as they toured the construction site and approached a tunnel of 4-inchglass that will allow zoo visitors to view the bears from below.

In November, Mr. Santorum faces state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., a conservative Democrat who says Mr. Santorum has lost touch with the voters who first elected him and accuses him of helping usher in a new and deeper era of fiscal irresponsibility.

The race is viewed by many — including Mr. Santorum — as one of the biggest challenges facing a Republican incumbent nationwide as Democrats seek six seats to gain control of the chamber. Mr. Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, says Democrats want revenge for Republicans’ 2004 toppling of Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota.

After the zoo event, Mr. Santorum was asked whether funding for the polar-bear exhibit really was all that important, given the federal government’s hemorrhaging debt, looming financial crisis in entitlement programs and expensive emergencies, such as the war in Iraq and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

“If the pot of money is there, I’m going to make sure we get a piece of that money,” said Mr. Santorum, who defended his record of support for “lean” budgets.

“The federal government does finance educational programs with respect to biology and zoology and a whole host of areas that we think is important for our children,” he said. “Is that an important thing? Well, you know, yeah, it probably is.”

That’s the wrong answer for some of his longtime supporters.

“Where does the federal government get the constitutional right to take $500,000 from people to build a polar-bear exhibit?” asked Charlie Clift, who has supported Mr. Santorum in every past election.

‘Lost touch’

To be sure, conservative Republicans such as Mr. Clift, who lives in Bucks County north of Philadelphia, aren’t upset at Mr. Santorum simply because he directed federal funding for the polar-bear exhibit. They say that after 16 years in Washington, he has “lost touch” with the vision of smaller, more responsible federal government that he promised.

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