Santorum courts GOP right, acts to mend Palin rift


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WASHINGTON -- The Neanderthal and Mama Grizzly have negotiated a truce.

This week, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and fellow Republican superstar Sarah Palin got into an Internet-inflamed spat, but their feud appeared to end Thursday afternoon, as Mr. Santorum explained that they "had an exchange" through an intermediary.

"There is no problem between Sarah Palin and me on that issue," he said following his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, meeting in Washington.

"That issue" was the word choice Mr. Santorum used in a radio interview when asked about Ms. Palin, the former Alaska governor-turned reality television star and will-she-or-won't-she 2012 presidential candidate.

Ms. Palin has decided to snub the influential activists at CPAC, and, when Mr. Santorum was asked previously about that decision, he had said she appeared to have other priorities. First, he referenced her lucrative speaking engagements and "other business opportunities." Then he added: "I don't live in Alaska, and I'm not the mother to all these kids, and I don't have other responsibilities that she has."

The comments entered the Washington media maelstrom via the online site Politico, which framed them as an attack on Ms. Palin for chasing money instead of attending the annual conservative confab.

Mr. Santorum tried to push back against that perception through his Twitter account, declaring: "All I said was -- she is VERY busy, PERIOD."

But Ms. Palin didn't see it that way when asked Wednesday night on Fox News about Mr. Santorum's comments. As she is wont to do, she turned up the rhetoric a few notches:

"I think some things were maybe taken out of context," she said. "So I will not call him the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, but perhaps others want to call him that. I'll let his wife call him that instead."

It was the latest twist in Mr. Santorum's long-shot presidential run, during which he has maintained the sharp tongue that won him acclaim from the right and helped cost him the 2006 election for a third term as a U.S. senator from Penn Hills.

Combined with his recent comments comparing the rights of the unborn to those of minorities -- saying President Barack Obama should be anti-abortion because he's black -- Mr. Santorum has often flirted with controversy, and is earning attention for it. He left the CPAC stage to be greeted by a large news media scrum eager for Palin comments, and two television cameras trailed him as he signed autographs.

Unlike many other speakers at CPAC, at which most presidential hopefuls take the stage to court the GOP base, Mr. Santorum took audience questions after his speech and made vague reference to the Palin kerfuffle.

"I will answer any question. In the last couple of days that probably wouldn't have been a good idea to answer every question, but I do," he said. "And you live by the sword and die by the sword."

Mr. Santorum's speech touched on familiar themes, accusing Mr. Obama of not believing in "American exceptionalism," as did President Ronald Reagan, whose posthumous 100th birthday was a pervasive CPAC theme, and taking the nation down a socialist path.

As the turmoil in Egypt heightened further, Mr. Santorum offered a strong rebuke of Obama administration foreign policy, a topic in which he asserted expertise as a senator that the rest of the potential GOP field lacks. He noted that the administration in 2009 did not support Iranian revolutionaries against a Tehran regime openly hostile to the United States, but that Mr. Obama is voicing support for an Egyptian uprising against a steadfast U.S. ally.

"I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't side with the [Egyptian] protesters," he said. "But what message are we sending to other countries, that when things get tough we walk away, and to our enemies, that when things get tough we'll be on your side? ... This is not a policy that's going to add to the security of our country."

He also reiterated his longtime conviction that Republicans shouldn't back away from social concerns such as abortion and gay marriage, both of which he believes should be illegal. "The social issues, those are the issues that matter, those are the issues that bind us together, and those are the issues we cannot retreat from," he said.

With the tea party movement's rise, the Republican Party has moved to the right recently -- more in line with Mr. Santorum, CPAC activists and Pennsylvania's newest GOP senator, Pat Toomey, one of the conference's first speakers Thursday.

Mr. Toomey reminisced about his first Senate run in 2004, a failed primary challenge from the right against then-incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, and said it had a lasting effect in pushing the party toward more stringent fiscal conservatism. By the time he decided to enter the 2010 race, Mr. Toomey was the GOP's anointed nominee -- having helped to force Mr. Specter to leave the Republican Party -- and then, after Mr. Specter's Democratic primary defeat, beating rival Joe Sestak in November's general election.

Now a Senate freshman, Mr. Toomey came to CPAC to pitch his maiden bill, which would obligate the government to make a priority of paying down interest on the national debt if the debt limit is not raised.

His bill aims to give Republicans additional leverage in extracting spending cuts and budget overhaul in exchange for votes to raise the debt ceiling, as it would assure that the government does not default on its debt if the ceiling doesn't rise. Democrats have attacked his measure as a plan to "Pay China First."

Mr. Toomey in his speech didn't deliver pithy anti-Obama one-liners as did many other CPAC speakers. But the owner of a 97 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, which puts on the conference, seemed at home at CPAC, knowing exactly whose name to drop.

"As we celebrate the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan this week, we don't have to apologize for being conservative," he said. "And we can win."

Among potential candidates who spoke Thursday were Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Ms. Bachmann called Mr. Obama's health care expansion the "crown jewel of socialism." Mr. Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is to speak today.

Like Ms. Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee isn't at the conference. Some conservatives chose not to attend in protest of the presence of a gay-rights booth.


Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. First Published February 11, 2011 5:00 AM


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