- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

For Newt Gingrich, welfare reform is one of the accomplishments the former House speaker touts as proof he’s the strongest conservative in the Republican presidential field — calling the effort “the most successful entitlement reform in your lifetime.”

But presidential rival Rick Santorum also takes credit for the policy, saying he co-authored the bill, before it became a cornerstone of Mr. Gingrich’s historic Contract With America, and then ushered it through the upper chamber as a freshman senator from Pennsylvania, on its way to becoming law in 1996.

“I was the author of the only bill that actually repealed a federal entitlement — welfare reform,” the former senator said this month. “I went up against Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ted Kennedy and battled over two vetoes of President Clinton [and] was able to get it done.”

By laying claim to the same thing in different ways, the two Republicans have underscored the ongoing battle between them to become the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential sweepstakes.

It was a different story a couple of weeks ago, when Mr. Gingrich floated the idea of forming a conservative tag team with Mr. Santorum in an attempt to pile-drive Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the party’s presidential nod.

But the idea soon flamed out, and now the two men, both Catholics, are slugging it out for the “anybody-but Romney” title ahead of the critical South Carolina primary on Saturday.

Mr. Santorum won in Iowa and outperformed Mr. Gingrich in New Hampshire, but he trails him in Palmetto State polls. That was clear in the debate Thursday when he opened fire on Mr. Gingrich, criticizing him for selling out conservative principles on health care, illegal immigration, pro-life issues and the Wall Street bailout.

Mr. Santorum’s first jab came early in the evening when he suggested that voters should consider Mr. Gingrich’s turbulent marital history as part of their political math when they head to the polls. “What we did in our lives are issues of character for people to consider,” he said.

Minutes later, he assailed Mr. Gingrich was “playing footsies with the left” when he supported, for more than a decade, the same sort of individual insurance mandate for health care that conservatives have attacked in President Obama’s controversial overhaul of the federal system.

“When he goes and says, ‘I can, you know, run rings around President Obama in a Lincoln-Douglas debate,’ you can’t run rings around the fact, Newt, that you supported the primary core basis of what President Obama’s put in place,” Mr. Santorum said, before pouncing on Mr. Gingrich’s counter that he’d simply tell voters that he learned from his mistakes while Mr. Obama didn’t.

“It’s not going to be the most attractive thing to go out there and say, you know, it took me 10 or 12 years to figure out I was wrong, when guys like Rick Santorum knew it was wrong from the beginning.”

By the time the night was over, Mr. Santorum had cast himself as the “solid” conservative and Mr. Gingrich as an egomaniac and a scatterbrained leader — arguing he has a penchant for “grandiosity” and even accusing him of lacking the courage to blow the lid off the congressional check-kiting scandal in the 1990s.

“You knew about it — for 10 or 15 years because you told me you knew about it — and you did nothing,” he said to Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Santorum was engaging in “selective history.” He said he worked to clean up Congress and highlighted the role he played building a GOP majority in Congress.

“Those are just historic facts, even if they’re inconvenient for Rick’s campaign,” he said.

Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political science professor, said the two men offer voters stark differences in substance and style.

Gingrich has shown himself to excel in debates, and clearly, he would be a more formidable match than Santorum against the president in such forums. But Gingrich’s substantial baggage will drag his campaign constantly if he is the nominee,” Mr. Rozell said.

In the tale of the conservative tape, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum share some weaknesses.

They both supported President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, dramatically expanding the federal government’s role in education, and the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program, putting taxpayers on the hook for $60 billion a year, according to the Club for Growth, an influential anti-spending group.

They also both embraced pork-barrel spending, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry chastising Mr. Gingrich — the man he endorsed Thursday upon dropping out of the race — as the “granddaddy of earmarks.” The Texan also criticized Mr. Santorum for backing the bill that funded the “Bridge to Nowhere” — an Alaska project that drew attention to the earmarking practice in 2005.

But, unlike Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election bid in a landslide, opposed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) Wall Street bailout, and built a solid reputation for opposing abortion and supporting traditional marriage.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, can’t seem to shake his turbulent marriage history, which haunted him again Thursday when one of his two former wives claimed during a nationally televised interview that he wanted an “open marriage” before seeking a divorce.

The Georgian also has faced criticism for proposing to give some longtime illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the country legally.

And on the welfare-reform issue, former Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, this week denied Mr. Gingrich’s claim that he played a key role, saying instead that he almost single-handedly killed the bill by speaking off the cuff about putting into orphanages some of those children whose mothers couldn’t support them.

“I had to spend two months at the end of 1994, again before we were even being sworn in, putting that to bed because the welfare bill had nothing to do with orphanages,” said Mr. Talent, who has endorsed Mr. Romney, during a conference call organized by the Romney camp. “He almost killed that bill before it was even born.”

Mr. Gingrich’s strengths include presiding over two balanced budgets, in 1998 and 1999 — though he claims to have presided over four. He also led the “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 midterm elections, in which the Republicans seized control of both chambers, including a majority of the seats in the House for the first time in 40 years.

The divide over who can best represent conservatives in the race helped fuel a feud within the party’s religious circles about whether a meeting over the weekend in Texas yielded a consensus that Mr. Santorum is the best bet to stop Mr. Romney. Mr. Santorum added another high-profile religious-right ally Thursday with the endorsement of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

Sparks also flew between Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich during a debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when Mr. Santorum warned that the Georgian’s push to transform Social Security into a privately run program — modeled after the personal savings account systems used in Chile and in Galveston, Texas — won’t work until the federal government balances the national budget.

“The idea of doing that now is fiscal insanity,” he said, arguing that Mr. Gingrich’s plan would saddle the nation with hundreds of billions of dollars in more debt and force the nation to borrow additional money from China.

At the same time, Mr. Santorum couched his statement by assuring the audience that he also wants to reshape the entitlement, which has become a frequent target of conservative criticism.

“There’s nobody for the last 15 years who’s been more in favor of personal savings accounts than I have for Social Security,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich parried the attack by highlighting his budget record.

“I would just suggest, having helped balance the budget for four consecutive years for the only time in your lifetime, I am reasonably confident I can find ways to balance the budget without hurting young people and blocking them from Social Security,” he said.

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