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Economic Conservatives Question Santorum's Record

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses an election night party in Steubenville, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses an election night party in Steubenville, Ohio, on Tuesday.

Support for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign has been driven by his conservative stances on social issues. He has taken unyielding stands against abortion and same-sex marriage.

But on economic matters, his record is more mixed. And some conservatives say that on issues like government spending and trade, he has at times betrayed free-market principles.

For example, when Congress voted to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement — a cause dear to the hearts of conservatives — Santorum, then a Pennsylvania representative, was among those voting against it.

Salena Zito, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, says in doing so, Santorum was simply being realistic.

"I think in Pennsylvania, it would have been very difficult for him to go forward without taking a stand on NAFTA. It was very unpopular in this state," she says.

A Son Of Western Pennsylvania

During this campaign season, Santorum has built a reputation as a kind of fearless warrior of the right, willing to flout popular opinion to follow his conscience. But on economic matters, his record is more pragmatic.

Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute says some of Santorum's positions should give fans of limited government pause.

"Some people say that the biggest role for conservatives should be to tell government to leave us alone," Tanner says. "Rick Santorum has never been a 'leave us alone' guy — either on social or economic issues."

On a number of occasions, Santorum showed a willingness to depart from conservative dogma when he needed to. In the Senate, he voted to impose a tariff on Chinese goods if China didn't stop manipulating its currency. He also voted to impose tariffs on imported steel.

Former Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Alan Novak says that as a son of western Pennsylvania, Santorum had watched the steel industry wither.

"It shapes how Rick Santorum views the importance of manufacturing in a balanced economy," he says.

Novak says that Pennsylvania, like a lot of Rust Belt states, had lost a huge number of industrial jobs, and voters expected Santorum to try to address the issue.

"I do remember when he and Sen. [Arlen] Specter were in the Senate together, they worked very closely together in identifying economic votes or business votes that they thought would benefit Pennsylvania," Novak says.

Often that meant supporting earmarks in an effort to bring money into the state — and especially into western Pennsylvania.

During a debate in New Hampshire earlier this year, Santorum defended his record.

"I'm a conservative; I'm not a libertarian. I believe in some government," he said. "I do believe that as a senator from Pennsylvania, that I had a responsibility to go out there and represent the interests of my state, and that's what I did, to make sure that Pennsylvania was able in formulas and other things to get its fair share of money back."

Picking Winners?

Santorum has also attracted criticism during the current campaign for advocating tax cuts for manufacturers. Free-market conservatives say that amounts to the government picking winners and losers in the economy.

Santorum insists he is reliably conservative on fiscal matters. He notes that he supported a balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto, for instance. And his relationship with Pennsylvania's labor unions has been chilly at best.

But Santorum's critics say his rhetoric is at odds with his record. And they have pummeled him in ads like one run by Restore Our Future, a political action committee that supports Mitt Romney.

"Santorum pushed for billions in wasteful pork, voting for the 'Bridge to Nowhere,' a teapot museum, even an indoor rain forest," the ad says.

In the media, attacks like these have often been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Santorum's positions on social issues. But they may well have played a part in the steady erosion of his support in the days before Super Tuesday.

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Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.