- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Fighting back against the charge that he’s too conservative to be the Republican presidential nominee, former Sen. Rick Santorum said Thursday that he’s just throwing the bombs others haven’t been willing to throw.

Mr. Santorum, the only candidate competing in Iowa’s caucuses who has never led in the polls, is suddenly surging here, according to the latest surveys and the crowds turning out in ever bigger numbers to hear him speak.

He has one message for them: to ignore the pundits and polls, test the candidates and decide for themselves what they want to see in a nominee.

“We can’t afford a president who’s going to be just a little better than the president who’s in there right now,” Mr. Santorum said. “Don’t settle for what won’t work. Don’t settle for winning a Pyrrhic victory. Fight for the contrast. Fight for the mandate.”

There’s no doubt Mr. Santorum is getting a better look from voters. What pundits want to know is whether there’s enough time before Tuesday’s caucuses here for him to capitalize on that, and what voters ask him repeatedly at stop after stop is whether he can sustain this surge better than previous claimants to the conservative mantle such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who both stumbled along the way.

Mr. Santorum tells them he was vetted by the Washington press during his time in the House and Senate and that will give him staying power.

“We feel very, very good that — and I’ve said this from the beginning — Iowa provides the spark. There’s plenty of tinder on the ground that will start burning in these other states,” he said at a morning town-hall meeting in Coralville. “If we become the clear alternative, as I hope we will be, in the caucus, the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, there will be a lot of folks who will rally to our side in New Hampshire.”

Mr. Perry on Thursday tried to regain his own footing with a radio ad attacking Mr. Santorum for his support of earmarks during his time in Congress. In the ad, Mr. Perry says Mr. Santorum requested more than $1 billion in earmarks during his time in office and voted to defend the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the Alaska pork-barrel project that drew attention to the earmarking practice in 2005.

Mr. Santorum did vote against an amendment that would have stripped out the bridge’s funding. On Thursday, he defended that vote and earmarking in general, saying the Constitution allows the federal government to spend money to build roads and he wasn’t going to tell other states how to spend their share of highway money.

“Who am I in Pennsylvania to tell Alaska what their highway priorities should be?” he responded when asked by MSNBC host Ed Schultz, who attended the candidate’s midday town hall and told Mr. Santorum he came off as “well-versed.” Mr. Schultz said the candidate “knows his stuff.”

Mr. Santorum said he’s not going to walk back his conservative stances just to adjust to the voters implicitly drawing a distinction between him and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran as a liberal Republican for the Senate in 1994, as a moderate Republican in his gubernatorial bid and is now running as a conservative.

Mr. Romney is 1-for-3 in elections, having lost that Senate race, won the governor’s race, then failed in his 2008 presidential bid. Mr. Santorum points that out to audiences, then mentions he is 2-for-3 in statewide races in Pennsylvania and lost his re-election bid in 2006 because he wouldn’t follow the advice of pundits who told him to slide to the middle.

“My feeling is — No. No. I mean, if I’m going to lose, I’m going to lose on my own terms,” he said. “I’m not going to run to the middle and lose by five. I’d rather stay where I am and lose by 15. Which is what I did. And I was OK with it.”

He told voters his 2001 vote in favor of the No Child Left Behind education act was a mistake, but he didn’t mention his vote in 2003 to create an entitlement program for prescription drugs as part of Medicare. He has told interviewers that he supported the entitlement in order to get good provisions, such as Medicare Advantage and expanded health savings accounts, programs that President Obama’s health care law curtails.

Speaking to reporters in Coralville, Mr. Santorum said he alone among the candidates mixes an outsider’s zeal with the ability to get things done on the inside in Washington, and he said he is willing “to throw the bombs when bombs need to be thrown.”

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