Can Rick Santorum claim the Tea Party mantle?

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., center left, greets people outside the Homestead Grocery and Deli Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, during a campaign stop in Amherst, N.H. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Rick Santorum
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

HOLLIS, N.H. -- Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum sees fiscal conservatism as the ticket to expanding his popularity. In the days leading up to New Hampshire's primary Tuesday, he's barnstorming the Granite state, trying to convince voters he has more to offer than just the socially conservative values which are his signature.

Santorum's strategy has at least one problem: He's creeping into Ron Paul's turf. The Texas congressman is all about fiscal conservatism - his brand of libertarianism is credited with inspiring the Tea Party movement - and he's not about to let a candidate with a record like Santorum's claim to be the Tea Party fiscal conservative in the Republican presidential race.

Aside from their pledges to significantly cut the federal budget and their party affiliation, Paul and Santorum have little in common. Paul is known for his "live and let live" attitude. He'd be happy to eliminate the Department of Education and to stay out of Iran's affairs -- nukes and all.

Santorum, meanwhile, voted in favor of No Child Left Behind, the law that greatly expanded the federal government's role in education, and as president, he would be prepared to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities unless they're opened to inspectors.

But Santorum's play for the Tea Party mantle has put Paul on offense. In a debate Saturday night hosted by ABC News, Yahoo! and WMUR-TV, Paul said Santorum's record shows "he's a big government, big spending individual."

Whether Santorum's economic message will resonate in the "live free or die" state -- or whether Paul's rebuttal will sink in -- remains to be seen. The latest polls show Santorum's support in New Hampshire at around 10 percent, while Paul is hovering around 20 percent.

Something about Santorum's campaign worked in Iowa, where he essentially tied the better-funded, more organized Mitt Romney in the January 3 caucuses. CBS News entrance polling showed that Tea Party conservatives who participated in the caucuses largely supported Santorum. Among those who said they support the Tea Party movement, 29 percent caucused for him, compared with 19 percent for Paul and 19 percent for Mitt Romney.

That may be because Santorum says he has a plan to balance the budget and cut federal spending by $5 trillion over five years. Some voters who showed up to hear Santorum speak on Saturday said they've always liked his social conservatism but previously didn't consider him a viable candidate. After his strong showing in Iowa, they're more inclined to support him --- if he can prove he's not a one-dimensional candidate who's all about social issues.

"He's not ashamed to stand for his moral convictions," said Dee Stiles, who turned out to see Santorum at the Homestead Grocery and Deli in Amherst, New Hampshire. But, Stiles said, that's not enough to make him an acceptable candidate. "He's got to address the economic issues."

Standing outside of Homestead to accommodate the large crowd (it was unclear how many people there were actual supporters, versus media or curious onlookers), Santorum said his campaign stood for "strong national security, limited government, and lower taxes."

One voter asked Santorum how to convince young people (a demographic that often falls into Paul's camp) to support his campaign. Santorum said to tell them, "The debt and deficit we're putting on their backs is immoral." He added that he's been "much more specific" about how to tackle the debt.

In an ad that ran both in Iowa and New Hampshire, Santorum's campaign calls the former senator a "full spectrum conservative" who is "rock solid on values issues" and "a favorite of the Tea Party for fighting corruption and taxpayer abuse."

At least one New Hampshire voter is buying Santorum's economic message - Bill Kotelly, an independent from Hollis, said that he switched from supporting Romney to Santorum within the past 48 hours, after checking out his platform online and hearing him at a town hall event on Saturday.

"He's the only one who can talk about issues like manufacturing and energy," he said. "The other guys just use buzz words, but he actually spells it out."

The Paul campaign - which has its own plan to cut $1 trillion from the budget in just one year -- seems miffed that anyone would consider Santorum a fiscal conservative.

When Sen. Rand Paul spoke at a Ron Paul rally on Friday, he alluded to "a guy who did relatively well in Iowa."

"He never voted against foreign aid," Rand Paul said. And he "voted to double the size of the Department of Education."

(Santorum on Saturday defended his votes on foreign aid. He said he didn't vote for foreign aid blindly, but he does support using a combination of hard power and soft power.)

Ron Paul on Friday said he "hardly" considered Santorum a competitor, but the actions of his campaign suggest otherwise. His campaign is launching an ad on Monday that slams Santorum as "another serial hypocrite who can't be trusted." It targets Santorum for voting five times to raise the debt ceiling, voting in favor of the notorious "bridge to nowhere," and taking lobbyist cash, among other things.

Paul gave the same line of attack in Saturday night's debate, giving Santorum the opportunity respond.

"I'm a conservative. I'm not a libertarian," Santorum said. "I believe in some government. I do believe that government has -- that as a senator from Pennsylvania that I had a responsibility to go out there and represent the interests of my state."

With respect to earmarking money for congressional pet projects, Paul said he agreed that the Congress -- not the executive branch -- should allocate money. "But the big difference between the way I voted and the senator voted is I always voted against the spending," he said.

Paul continued his attack: "So you're a big spender; that's all there is to it. You're a big-government conservative... So to say you're a conservative, I think, is a stretch. But you've convinced a lot of people of it, so somebody has to point out your record."

Paul's campaign may have the strength to seriously counter Santorum's economic message. Meanwhile, Santorum can't seem to shake his reputation as a social conservative.

At his Saturday afternoon town hall in Hollis, one man asked Santorum how his anti-abortion rights position could be considered conservative, when it amounted to imposing more government rules on people's personal lives. Santorum responded that his stance was "a conservative position, a Founder's position."

Comments