DES MOINES, Iowa - The attacks landed on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum before he could even reach this Midwest state.
Robo-calls branding Santorum a "pro-life fraud" were made to voters across the state Monday, one day before he was due to be the keynote speaker at the conservative Iowa Christian Alliance here.
That was followed by an e-mail that falsely claimed to be a "policy announcement" from Santorum. The e-mail linked to a video critical of Santorum posted on YouTube.
The calls and e-mail targeted Santorum for his past political support for former N.J. Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties last year because he did not want to face a Republican primary election in Pennsylvania.
A woman reading the script for the robo-call, which did not identify who paid for the effort, urged voters to confront Santorum or call him at his Washington think-tank and demand that he apologize for his "pro-abortion politics."
Santorum, who faced a series of flight delays and cancellations as he traveled yesterday from Washington to Des Moines, took the attacks in stride.
"It's amazing," Santorum said, as he wondered if the calls and e-mail were the first attack ads of the 2012 election season. "I'm flattered."
Santorum later countered the attacks in front of a crowd of 400 people by trying to own the point, confessing that he did not speak up on the issue of abortion in his four years as a congressman or his first year in the U.S. Senate.
"There are a lot of people who vote pro-life," Santorum said. "There are very few people who stand up and fight pro-life. And there's a reason for that. You pay a price."
Santorum said that the issue crystallized for him when a sonogram showed that his wife was carrying a child with a fatal heart defect and a doctor offered abortion as an option. They proceeded with the pregnancy and she gave birth to a son who lived two hours, Santorum said, choking up.
"I appreciate their zealotry," Santorum said of whoever sponsored the attacks. "I love their commitment and I will not criticize anyone trying to hold us to a higher standard."
The calls and e-mail likely were made on behalf of one of the Republicans whom Santorum may face in the Iowa caucuses 22 months from now.
The robo-calls slammed Santorum for backing Whitman in 1997, noting that she had ties to Republican groups that supported abortion rights. It also noted that Santorum helped Specter overcome a GOP primary challenge in 2004 from former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who opposes abortion.
"Senator Specter, a left-wing Democrat, is a leading advocate for President Obama's liberal agenda in Washington," the call said.