Santorum Turns His Outsider Argument Inside-Out

PHOTO: Rick Santorum and Mitt RomneyPlayJustin Sullivan/Getty Images
WATCH Romney Attacks Santorum on 'Bridge to Nowhere'

Mitt Romney may have found an opening to strangle Rick Santorum's chances of stealing the Republican nomination — and all he had to do was let his rival talk.

Repeatedly during their debate Wednesday night, Romney forced Santorum to defend what he did as a senator between 1995 and 2007. Turns out, Santorum did what most members of Congress do — vote for things that cost money and, in some cases, come to regret some of those decisions.

Where Santorum ran into trouble was when he tried to explain how Congress works to the audience in Arizona and Republican voters everywhere. Most people think Congress doesn't work, and Santorum's spirited defense of the system seriously slices into his claim that he's an outsider, not a Washington type.

Santorum was booed when he said that he voted for President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education initiative even though he didn't like it.

"I have to admit: I voted for that," Santorum said. "It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake."

As the boos echoed, Santorum told his dissenters, "You know, politics is a team sport, folks."

That wasn't all — Santorum was caught on the defensive more than once justifying his votes to raise the debt limit and approve of spending projects known derogatively as earmarks. "I did say there were good earmarks and bad earmarks," Santorum said as he explained his vote to okay a military tool he called essential for Marines.

But his argument became confusing at the end: "I'm proud I defended it at the time, because I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks."

"I didn't follow all of that," Romney responded, most likely speaking for lots of people watching.

Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate who is the president of the conservative group American Values and who has endorsed Santorum, said the ex-senator "handled it as best as he could under the circumstances."

"If there was one negative, it's the debate got into a lot of inside-the-Beltway terms and references that I suspect the average Republican voter probably found somewhat mystifying," Bauer said.

Here's a sample of the terms Santorum offered in his defense Wednesday night: "debt to GDP ratio," "Congress has a role of allocating resources," "line-item veto," "a large appropriation bill."

Karen Testerman, a former candidate for governor in New Hampshire who supports Santorum, said that the underdog's appeal is in his tendency to explain complex issues. In January, for example, Santorum notably picked apart "RomneyCare" in a nuanced walkthrough of the way that the law brought Massachusetts a "disproportionate" amount of Medicaid money, resulting in other states paying more in taxes to cover for it.

"One of the things that I've heard from many people from around the country, basically, is that's one of the things they do appreciate about Rick, is that he takes the time to explain the situation and the options," Testerman said.

But Testerman said of the debate around earmarks and other complicated Washington systems that "getting into it is harmful because it is so complex."

The morning after the debate, Romney had more than enough arrows to shoot.

The former Massachusetts governor started Thursday by mocking Santorum for "taking one for the team."

"I wonder which team he was taking it for," Romney said. "My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington."

"I don't know if I've ever seen a politician explain in so many ways why it was he voted against his principles," Romney added.

The debate, possibly the last one of the GOP primary, was the first forum in which Santorum deserved the term "frontrunner" more than Romney did. After winning a string of primaries this month, Santorum has enjoyed a sustained lift on top of national polls and a favorable standing in Michigan, a key primary on Tuesday.

Bauer, who said he spoke with Santorum recently, described the candidate as "excited" but that "you could also sort of sense that the whole campaign is attempting to drink water out of a fire hydrant."

"They all of a sudden are thrust onto the big stage, and it's a challenge," he said.