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Santorum's conservative record strong but with a couple of flaws

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks with NBC's Andrea Mitchell about the driving principles of his campaign.

For conservative Republican voters who can’t accept Ron Paul’s bring-the-troops-home foreign policy, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum seems to be emerging as the best alternative to Mitt Romney.

Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll showed Santorum with 15 percent of likely caucus goers supporting him, up from 6 percent in late November.

Four weeks ago, few people were paying close attention to Santorum. But now, with victory in the Iowa caucuses, or a strong second, seeming to be within Santorum’s reach, Republicans are digging into his record to assess how conservative he really was during his 16 years in Congress.

Best known for his outspoken stands on social issues, Santorum led the fight for a ban on the procedure known as partial birth abortion, a ban that President Bill Clinton repeatedly vetoed, but was signed into law by President George W. Bush and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.

Santorum also was the leader of the 2004 effort to amend the Constitution to allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and to define marriage in federal law solely as the traditional man-woman union.

He got credit for his skillful Senate floor management of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which Clinton ultimately signed after vetoing an earlier version.

On gun owners’ rights, Santorum voted against extending the ban on so-called “assault weapons” and against the 1993 Brady bill which imposed a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun and required criminal background checks on gun purchasers.

In line with Republican tax-cutting orthodoxy, he voted for the income tax reductions which Bush proposed in 2001 and 2003 and voted to abolish the estate tax in 2002.

Santorum’s career rating from the American Conservative Union, based on dozens of roll call votes during his 16 years in Congress, was 88 out of 100, not quite as conservative as that of Ron Paul or Jim DeMint of South Carolina, for instance, but still ranking Santorum as one of most conservative Republicans in Congress.

Santorum told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie last week, “I've voted toughly over the years to cut spending and to rein in entitlements. I've led on those things.”

But there’s at least one blemish on Santorum’s conservative record: his vote for the Medicare prescription drug entitlement in 2003 -- the biggest expansion of the program since it was created in 1965 and a bill that the Congressional Budget Office said would add nearly $400 billion to cumulative budget deficits over the first ten years after its enactment.

Fiscal conservatives such as Paul, DeMint and Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvanian Pat Toomey voted against the Medicare prescription drug bill, as did Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

McCain made the case against the Medicare prescription drug bill: “Adding a new unfunded entitlement to a system that is already financially insolvent is so grossly irresponsible that it ought to outrage every fiscal conservative.”

But on the Senate floor right before the prescription drug entitlement was approved, Santorum explained his support for it: “I say to my conservative friends who are expressing concern about this bill, the most important thing in this bill, from my perspective, for conservatives is this plan allows for health savings accounts” -- which are tax-free accounts people can use to set aside money for medical expenses.

“Fundamentally, what health savings accounts will do is eventually change Medicare -- not today, not even five or 10 years from now, but over the long term, once health savings accounts become what I believe they will become, which is the method of choice that the vast majority of people in this country will do in the private sector,” he said. “This will be a very popular plan in which millions of Americans will participate, and it will fundamentally change the insurance market in this country.”

Ten years later, Santorum’s prediction has not come to pass. Most Medicare enrollees continue to choose traditional fee-for-service Medicare, and in the under-65 population, health savings accounts are used by only a few million people.

In its assessment of Santorum’s congressional career, the conservative advocacy group, The Club for Growth gave him high marks for supporting tax cuts and welfare reform but criticized him as “a prolific supporter of earmarks, having requested billions of dollars for pork projects in Pennsylvania while he was in Congress.” The Club for Growth also slammed him for voting against the North American Free Trade Agreement and for co-sponsoring a bill to impose tariffs on steel imports.

On the campaign trial in Iowa, Santorum has faced a few critical questions not on these votes but on his long association with Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania’s long-serving senior Republican senator, who switched parties in 2009 but lost the 2010 Democratic Senate primary to Joe Sestak

 Terry Madonna, the veteran Pennsylvania pollster and analyst at Franklin and Marshall College, said the Santorum-Specter partnership “wasn’t a bosom buddy relationship, but they developed a modus vivendi for how they’d operate. Specter stayed out of Republican politics in the state and let Santorum be the major domo.”

Although ideologically opposed on issues such as abortion and gay rights, the two men developed a pragmatic partnership. Madonna notes that Specter lent Santorum his political staff in eastern Pennsylvania in 1994 when Santorum ran for the Senate and they even shared the same campaign manager – Pat Meehan, who is now a Republican congressman in Pennsylvania. Santorum endorsed Specter’s brief bid for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.

And Santorum helped bolster Specter in the wake of the 2004 election when conservatives tried to topple Specter from the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee after he warned Bush to not nominate anyone to the Supreme Court who might try to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

“Sen. Santorum has been enormously helpful,” Specter said during that chairmanship fight. “He’s gone above and beyond the call of duty. My number one priority in the next two years is to reelect Sen. Santorum.”

It didn’t work out that way: Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006. But now – in a most unlikely comeback, Santorum is poised to be the conservatives’ man of the moment in Iowa.