- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Scrambling for support ahead of Tuesday’s Michigan primary, Republican presidential contenders are again trying to distance themselves from former President George W. Bush’s bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry — moves, they say, that have stained the party’s reputation.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania criticized Mr. Bush’s support of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and the $17.4 billion loan to Detroit automakers in the waning days of his presidency that greased the wheels for President Obama to funnel billions more into General Motors and Chrysler.

“I actually blame President Bush more than I blame President Obama. President Obama was just following suit. President Bush set the precedent,” Mr. Santorum said during a recent appearance at the Detroit Economic Club.

The former senator’s comments came about a week after Mr. Bush assured attendees of the National Automobile Dealers Association Convention that he would “make the same decision again.”

Mr. Santorum, though, said “it was the wrong precedent” — even as General Motors posted record profits last week.

“I think that while there may be companies today that are doing well — and obviously you have a couple of companies here that are — the long-term consequence to this country … is not going to be a good one,” he said.

It’s the latest move in a campaign characterized by the four remaining candidates — Mr. Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the Bush-era Republican Party that racked up deficits, created a new health entitlement, expanded the federal role in education and pushed for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“Everybody has been thinking about who the anti-Romney is in this campaign, but they should be thinking about who the anti-Bush is, and that is the case Santorum has been making in Michigan,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist. “That is what this is about. It isn’t about anti-Romney. It is about anti-Bush and who can purge the party of the bad smell left over by the Bush guys.”

The push back against Mr. Bush, though, also has caused some headaches for Mr. Santorum, putting him in the tricky position of explaining why he supported some of Mr. Bush’s marquee pieces of legislation that many conservatives now abhor.

The Paul campaign, for instance, released a new television advertisement this week attacking Mr. Santorum for supporting two of Mr. Bush’s initiatives.

“He voted to double the size of the Department of Education through the costly and wildly unpopular No Child Left Behind … and he voted for the behemoth Medicare Part D — the biggest such entitlement expansion since the 1960s,” the campaign said in a news release.

Michael Heaney, University of Michigan political scientist, said it’s about more than just a lingering dislike of Mr. Bush.

“Part of the reason for this is basically you have seen the emergence of a new social movement within the Republican Party, which is the tea party,” Mr. Heaney said. “You are really seeing this reorganization of the Republican grass roots, which is the reason why you are seeing the shifting positions.”

With that as a backdrop, the GOP nomination race has entered a key stretch of the nomination calendar.

The four rivals were scheduled to meet for the debate in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday, the first face-off in nearly a month and the last one before voters head to the polls Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona.

Polls show Mr. Romney leading in Arizona and running neck-and-neck with Mr. Santorum in Michigan, where the former venture capitalist also has said he believes that General Motors and Chrysler should have entered into a managed bankruptcy process instead of taking the federal bailout.

Many political observers say that if Mr. Romney wants to win the nomination, he likely has to win in Michigan, where he grew up and his father served as both an automobile executive and governor. The former Massachusetts governor has the support of the state’s current governor and the attorney general, as well as the endorsement of the Detroit News.

But Mr. McKenna said Mr. Santorum’s message is making him competitive.

“He understands what people ultimately care about is not policies, it is philosophies, and that is something Romney never understood and it is something that George Bush never understood. You are not buying a set of policies. You are buying a philosophy and hoping they can apply that to the problems of the day,” he said.

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