Santorum Defends President, Iraq War

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), battling for reelection in a state where President Bush is not popular, gave a full-throated defense of the president yesterday and said the United States must prevail in the Iraq war.

In his first and perhaps only debate with Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr., Santorum lived up to his reputation as a feisty, unapologetic conservative, even though it has caused him problems in moderate-voting Pennsylvania. Ignoring Casey's taunts that he is a "rubber stamp" for Bush, Santorum embraced the president and most of his anti-terrorism policies.

"I think he's been a terrific president, absolutely," Santorum said in the nearly hour-long debate on NBC's "Meet the Press." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- whose resignation is being sought by some Republican candidates -- "has done a fine job," he said, and "there is no question that the Iraq war should have commenced."

Polls consistently have shown Casey, the state treasurer and son of a popular former governor, leading Santorum. Democrats see the race as among their two or three best chances for gaining a Senate seat on Nov. 7, although Santorum has a record of winning tough elections. Santorum, who has asked for many debates, spent much of the hour portraying Casey as a bob-and-weave politician unwilling to take stands on tough issues.

Moderator Tim Russert tried to pin down Casey on whether he still believes he would have voted to support the Iraq invasion, knowing what is now known about Saddam Hussein's lack of unconventional weapons. "If we knew then what we know now," his vote would be no, Casey said, adding, "I think there wouldn't have been a vote" in the House and Senate under those circumstances.

Russert also pressed Casey on how he would fulfill his pledge to balance the federal budget. Casey said he would seek to repeal the recent tax cuts for persons making more than $200,000 a year, and retain a tax on very large estates, which Santorum opposes. But he would not identify federal programs he would be willing to cut.

"What you heard from Mr. Casey is what you hear all the time," Santorum said. "No specifics, no answer."

Casey said Santorum has helped expand the deficit dramatically by joining Bush in cutting taxes without trimming spending. As treasurer, Casey said, he has "been fiscally responsible in my work. You ought to try it." Although both candidates oppose legalized abortion in most cases, they differed on the government's recent decision to allow nonprescription sales of Plan B or the "morning-after" emergency contraceptive pill to women 18 and older. Santorum said he opposed the decision because the pill essentially causes an abortion in cases in which an egg has been fertilized.

Casey said, "I think the science is clear on this. I think it is contraception," not abortion.

Russert pressed Santorum on his willingness to allow abortions in cases of rape and incest, even though the senator says it involves the taking of a human life. Santorum said he agreed to such exemptions in an effort to find "common ground" in the abortion debate.

Democrats hoped to negate some of Santorum's appeal to conservatives and moderates by nominating Casey, who supports gun rights and opposes abortion. But some Democrats worry that Casey is playing it too safe by refusing most debate invitations and offering unspecific solutions to many problems.

With Casey and Santorum sitting elbow to elbow across a table from Russert in a Washington studio, the candidates had their sharpest exchange over a recent raise for Pennsylvania legislators, which proved unpopular with voters. As treasurer, Santorum said, Casey "said nothing for three months, signed the checks," and opposed the raise only after the controversy had crested. "That's not courage, that's political pandering." Casey replied that he was "following the law," and noted that Santorum had not taken a stand on the pay raise. "I'm not a state official, you are," Santorum said.

Russert devoted much of the program to Iraq. Santorum responded by repeatedly turning to criticism of Iran, saying Iraq's Shiite-led neighbor is "at the heart of this war. . . . How do we cure Iraq? Focus on Iran." In a rare swipe at the White House, he said, "a big problem I have with this administration is it hasn't been tough enough on Iran." Casey criticized Bush's handling of the war -- and called for Rumsfeld's resignation -- without urging a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals. "We need new leadership," he said. "We don't need a deadline, a timeline." He called for greater "accountability" in the war, and more special forces.

Santorum repeated his assertion that "we have found weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, an allusion to shells apparently left over from Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s. "We have not found any new weapons," he acknowledged.

Casey scoffed at "this crazy theory that there's still weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

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