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GOP debate: A blow to Santorum's appeal

February 22, 2012 |  9:17 pm

Santorum
What happens when you’re the front-runner? Everybody else gangs up on you.

Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate looked like something of an ordeal for Rick Santorum, the sudden but perhaps tenuous front-runner in the national polls.

Mitt Romney accused Santorum (accurately) of voting to fund Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” and said he wasn’t a fiscal conservative. Ron Paul accused him of being a hypocrite for supporting “No Child Left Behind,” the education program of President George W. Bush. And CNN’s moderator John King demanded that he explain his controversial position opposing birth control.

All that ganging up, not surprisingly, put Santorum on the defensive.

When he defended his position on birth control, he was passionate and effective -- in part by changing the subject to the problem of single-parent households.  “How can a country survive if children are being raised in homes where it's so much harder to succeed economically?” he asked. (“Just because I’m talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it,” he added.)

On his record in Congress, though, Santorum said he sometimes voted for bills he didn’t agree with because his party’s leaders wanted him to.

On his vote in favor of the Bush education bill, he said: “It was against the principles I believed in.... I made a mistake.” The reason for that vote against his own conscience? “Politics is a team sport.”

Not a great moment. Many Republican voters are looking for a principled conservative alternative to Romney, not another Bush-era compromiser. For a while, Santorum has looked like that alternative. But on Wednesday evening, Romney and Paul forced Santorum to admit that he was not only a member of Congress -- America’s least favorite profession -- but one who sometimes bent his principles when party politics demanded. They took aim at the heart of Santorum’s appeal to conservatives and appeared to score a blow or two.

ALSO:

Goldberg: Mr. Right eludes the GOP

Santorum's theology of the outrageous

How about Santorum vs. Obama, winner take all?

--Doyle McManus

Photo: Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, left, and Mitt Romney participate in a debate sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona at the Mesa Arts Center on Feb. 22. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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