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Right Turn
Posted at 06:02 PM ET, 01/26/2012

Exclusive: Santorum before the final Florida debate

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate will be the last chance before Florida votes on Tuesday for Newt Gingrich to grab back the spotlight and for his opponents to land some blows. I spoke a short time ago by phone with Rick Santorum, who is trying to supplant Gingrich as the principle challenger to Mitt Romney.

Santorum strongly rejected any notion that he is “leaving” Florida. “I was the first one here,” he says, “I have to go to Philly for fundraising, and I have to go do my taxes.” He joked, “I need to get fresh underwear. I’m not like those guys flying around in private jets.” But he’ll be back Sunday and Monday, leaving Tuesday (“It’s a voting day, not a campaigning day”) for other states.

Earlier in the day, he went after Gingrich for the latter’s space colony proposal. He told me, “This is what Newt does,” adding that Gingrich feels compelled to go chasing after these fantastical ideas rather than focusing on concrete problems. Santorum marveled that Gingrich wants to do this when Congress is trying to find $1.2 trillion in spending cut. He says that people shouldn’t simply laugh the idea off. “This is serious,” he warns. Indeed, in the last debate it was Santorum who pinned the “grandiose” label on Gingrich.

As for tonight’s debate, Santorum knows Gingrich has been able to whip up the crowd in prior debates. He says he hopes that voters haven’t stopped using “reason” and are giving into pure emotion. He is hopeful that voters won’t ultimately be guided by theatrics. “That’s why I’m sticking around,” he says. He also contends, “Voters don;t want an angry candidate. I don’t want to be angry. I want to be tough, but not angry.” He thinks a ranting candidate will compare poorly to President Obama in the general election.

For his part, Santorum prefers debates with fewer participants, but recognizes that “no matter how well you do, when the media wants to focus on [a two-man] race,” it is hard to break through. Nevertheless, he’s been increasingly tough on Gingrich and Mitt Romney where he believes they are both vulnerable: He’s been the only candidate so far to attack Gingrich’s wild schemes on Social Security. And he’s been tough on both Gingrich and Romney’s embrace of the individual mandate. Look for more of that tonight.

I asked him about the president’s State of the Union address and in particular his newfound focus on manufacturing. Santorum takes a measure of credit for refocusing the race on manufacturing and the critical swing states impacted by the decline in manufacturing. He says that the president offered primarily rhetoric. “He says if you do this we’ll give you a tax break; If you run your business the way we want we’ll reward you.” He contrasts that with his own plan that includes zeroing out the corporate income tax for manufacturing companies, repatriating overseas profits without any tax consequence, and reducing burdensome regulations. He also stresses that Obama has figured out the need to appeal to blue collar voters in swing states. “We have someone who can do that. I’m not a Bain guy and not a college professor.” He says as someone who grew up “on the grounds of the VA” and who has policies crafted to help middle income voters, he’s the smart pick for Republicans.

Finally, Santorum calls the president’s turnaround on permitting nuclear fuel production “lunacy” which undercuts Obama’s own nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Referring to Obama’s decision to pull missile sites out of Eastern Europe he says, “We stuck it to Poland. We stuck it to the Czechs to get a START deal,” and now, “in the most susceptible part of the world,” the Middle East, Obama is going to open the door to nuclear fuel production.

Santorum shows no signs of giving up. He’s got a logical strategy: Should Gingrich melt down (always a strong possibility) he’ll be there to offer perhaps the final alternative to a Mitt Romney nomination. So long as he keeps hammering his opponents, raising money and doing well in debates, he keeps himself in the hunt. We’ll see how well he does tonight in accelerating Gingrich’s political demise.

Right Turn will be back after the debate with analysis and winners and losers.

By  |  06:02 PM ET, 01/26/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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