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Pawlenty: Santorum's not the "perfect" conservative he claims to be

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens at the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool

With Newt Gingrich losing ground in the battle for the Republican nomination after two consecutive losses, Mitt Romney's campaign is turning its attention to Rick Santorum.

The day before Tuesday's caucuses in Minnesota, the front-runner for the Republican nomination's campaign blasted the former Pennsylvania senator's conservative credentials as polls show him with strong support in the state.

In a Monday conference call, former Minnesota governor and Romney surrogate Tim Pawlenty rejected the idea that Santorum is the only "perfect" conservative in the Republican race, particularly targeting Santorum's record for spending on pet projects while he was in Congress. And the campaign sent out a press release from four years ago, when Santorum endorsed Romney in his first, unsuccessful, bid for the White House.

Pawlenty also cited Santorum's past support for raising the legal U.S. borrowing limit and spending government surpluses as evidence that the former Pennsylvania senator's economic philosophy does not reflect the "perspective of someone that conservatives would look to as someone who is a strong, abashed fiscal hawk."

"As a nation facing a fiscal crisis - literally on the edge of the fiscal abyss - we need a next president who has been strong and proven on fiscal spending matters," he said.

Santorum has defended his use of earmarks in the past, arguing that the idea that "because someone earmarks, that they're an irresponsible spender, is just absurd."

Santorum wasn't in Congress in 2007 when Congress started to require members to disclose earmark requests, so it's difficult know the extent to which Santorum made such requests for earmark spending. He did, however, vote for the highway spending bill that included the "bridge to nowhere" in 2005.

"The big problem in the federal government with spending is not earmarks, it's entitlements," Santorum said in January. "The people of Pennsylvania elected me to represent the interests of Pennsylvania."

Targeting Santorum's history with earmarks is not new - former candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have also done so - but the Romney team's attacks represent what appears to be a shift in the campaign's strategy, which has previously directed most of its fire toward President Obama and Newt Gingrich.

In light of what appears to be Santorum's strength in some staunchly conservative caucus-states, however, the campaign has focused more on discrediting his credibility as "true conservative" in the race.

Pawlenty on Monday argued that Santorum is neither as conservative as he has painted himself nor as conservative as are Minnesota caucus-goers.

Santorum, he said, has "held himself out as the perfect or near-perfect conservative - but in fact that's not his record."

"Rick Santorum is clearly not as conservative on these matters as Minnesota caucus attendees," he said. "That's the message we wanted to convey."

Romney's record, Pawlenty argued, "of course isn't perfect," but if neither is Santorum's. "It's not a perfect record by a long shot."

The former presidential candidate also attempted to tamp down expectations for Romney in Minnesota tomorrow, noting the caucus's typically "modest turnout" and heavily conservative voter base.

"The attendees are very committed and tend to gravitate toward the perceived most conservative candidate," he said. "It'll be very competitive."

The Minnesota politician said he could see "a scenario where the three or four top candidates are bunched together toward the top of the pack" but that "it's gonna be hard to tell who's gonna be on top of that pack." (Only four candidates are competing in the race.)

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