In the face of aggressive questioning by host David Gregory, former senator Rick Santorum (R., Penn.) cheerily defended his legislative record on spending, abortion, and Iran — and his previous support for Mitt Romney — on today’s Meet the Press.
Buoyed by his recent rise in Iowa — he placed third in the Des Moines Register’s latest poll of likely caucusgoers — Santorum laughed when Gregory asked him if anything less than a first-place finish would sink his campaign.
“Ten days ago, I was at 5 percent, and every question I got was, ‘Why don’t you pack it up?’” he reminisced. “Now . . . you’re saying, ‘Aw, you gotta win to exceed expectations.’” Clearly hoping to lower expectations, Santorum suggested if he placed ahead of Perry “and/or Bachmann,” his campaign would “be in good shape.”
Casting a skeptical eye toward the ex-senator, Gregory asked him why, despite having served 16 years in Congress, he has so far failed to win a single endorsement from his former colleagues.
“I haven’t asked anybody,” Santorum replied, acknowledging his low standing in national polls. “I haven’t asked a single one to endorse me because I felt like I had to earn it first.” He also tried to turn this handicap into an advantage: “I don’t really need or want Washington endorsements.”
Gregory then challenged Santorum on his voting record, mentioning his support for the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” among other pork-barrel projects. “Do you regret voting for some of those projects?” Gregory asked.
“Your role as a member of Congress, if you look at the Constitution, is to appropriate money,” Santorum explained. “Of course, if you appropriate money, you’re going to say where that money’s going to go. You’re not going to say, ‘Well, here’s the money, Mr. President, spend it anyway you want.’” Santorum also pointed out that “Jim DeMint, who led the charge on pork-barrel spending, earmarked things for years.”
Afterward, Gregory noted that Santorum had endorsed Romney for president in 2008, calling him the “clear conservative candidate” in the race. “What changed?” Gregory asked.
“What changed was who he’s running against,” Santorum replied. “I made the political judgment, right or wrong, that the best chance to stop John McCain [was to support Romney].” When Gregory observed that Santorum made a more full-throated endorsement at the time, Santorum responded, “Well, of course I’m not going to say ‘compared to’; I mean I’m trying to advocate for his candidacy.”
“So you didn’t mean that then?” Gregory asked.
“Well, I was saying it relative to John McCain,” Santorum concluded.
Gregory also questioned Santorum’s social-conservative bona fides, quoting an interview with the Associated Press in 2006 in which Santorum said he “would support laws that include exceptions in case of rape and incest, and when the life of the mother is at risk.” Had the hard-core social conservative moderated his stance to win an election in a Democratic state, a là Romney?
“I would support laws that would provide for those exceptions, but I’m not for them,” Santorum responded. “I supported the partial-birth-abortion-ban act. Now does that ban all abortions? No. But it moves the country in the right direction. And so what I’ve said in the past consistently is I’ll support laws that move the ball forward.”
Finally, Gregory asked Santorum to elaborate on “material” differences between his policy toward Iran and President Obama’s. The former senator decried the president’s indifferent response to the pro-democracy movement that formed in Iran after its presidential election in 2009.
“I understand why the president would understand someone announcing the minute after the polls close that he won, I mean he comes from Chicago,” Santorum joked.
When Gregory pressed for other differences, Santorum explained that he would support airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He pledged to warn Iran, “You either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and make them available to inspectors, or we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes.”
Slightly taken aback by Santorum’s forthright answer, Gregory asked Santorum to confirm it. The ex-senator replied, “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon under my watch.”
Watch the interview below.