As polls show Rick Santorum leading in Tuesday’s Minnesota caucuses and Missouri’s beauty-contest primary, the Mitt Romney campaign has turned its fearsome attack machine on the conservative former senator from Pennsylvania.
Santorum, while dinging Romney for negative politics, obviously seems to love the credibility that being a target brings to his campaign.
The Romney critique has centered on Santorum's record in the Senate as a seeker and defender of “earmarks,” the now-restricted practice by which federal appropriations are directed toward pet projects in a lawmaker’s state or district, outside the normal agency review process.
On Monday, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a former presidential candidate himself who now is backing Romney, called Santorum a “leading earmarker and pork-barrel spender” during a conference call with reporters.
Asked to predict the outcome of his state’s caucuses, Pawlenty declined but noted that it will be competitive and that caucus-goers tend “to gravitate toward the perceived most conservative candidate.”
Pawlenty said that Santorum has a “credible campaign” and has earned the scrutiny, citing stronger showings in recent polls that indicate the possibility of higher finishes than the third and fourth places he got in Nevada, Florida and South Carolina.
Indeed, Newt Gingrich’s campaign appears to have stalled after his strong Jan. 21 win in the South Carolina primary. In the wake of the Nevada caucuses Saturday, some conservative commentators have argued that Santorum might be the stronger right-wing alternative to Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
“He's a credible candidate and deserves to be right in the middle of the back-and-forth of the campaigns, and I think that’s what you see happening,” Pawlenty said.
Campaigning in Rochester, Minn., Santorum both parried and welcomed the attack. (incidentally, a guy in a pink pig costume was picketing the event)
“This is typical Romney," Santorum said, the news site Politico reported. “This is a situation where someone is now doing well, rising in the polls, and instead of Governor Romney going out and talking about, you know, his plans and what he's going to do, he goes out and throws the kitchen sink.”
Added Santorum, “He simply goes out and attacks and tries to destroy. I don't think it's going to work this time.”