WASHINGTON — Supporters of the tea party movement, the grass-roots conservatives who've been relentless in demanding tough, lean budgets, are rallying behind Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum — but Santorum's record suggests he's hardly one of them.
His support among tea party Republicans is surging, according to a new Pew Research Center poll, which labels him the clear favorite of the influential group.
Yet while Santorum was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007, he was hardly the kind of die-hard fiscal conservative whom movement followers crave.
"His record contains more than a few weak spots that make us question if he would resist political expediency when it comes to economic issues," said an analysis from the Club for Growth, which promotes fiscal conservatism.
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Added Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, "There are places you can say yes and places you can say no" as to whether Santorum is a rock-solid fiscal conservative.
The former senator, Meckler said, is "a relatively average Republican. His votes change from year to year depending on whether it's an election year. I'd say he's a relative conservative on taxes."
In a nationwide poll taken last Wednesday through Sunday, Pew found that among Republican and GOP-leaning voters, 42 percent of tea party backers preferred Santorum. Rival Mitt Romney was far behind at 23 percent.
But questions about Santorum's fiscal background — questions the Romney and Ron Paul campaigns are raising daily — suggest that Santorum's support is going to be tested severely as the campaign moves into Michigan and Arizona, which hold primaries Feb. 28.
Santorum's fiscal record is certainly more conservative than that of most lawmakers, and he's consistently supported major tax-cut legislation. But his record has some significant blemishes from the purist-conservative perspective.
Santorum most angered conservatives with his backing of the expensive 2003 Medicare prescription-drug program, which is expected to cost about $68 billion this year alone. Santorum told CNN last year that his Medicare vote was a mistake, because the program wasn't paid for.
His vote for the 2005 highway bill — a $284 billion measure that was loaded with earmarks, including the infamous Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere" — also outraged conservatives.
Santorum has been a consistent supporter of earmarks, the local projects that members of Congress insert into legislation. Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks, estimates that in Santorum's 12 years in the Senate and four in the House of Representatives, he got at least $1 billion in projects.
"He's not in the pantheon of great earmarkers, but he certainly played the game," said Steve Ellis, the group's vice president.
In addition, Santorum voted many times to raise the federal debt ceiling and for Amtrak funds.
"By most standards, he's a conservative. The problem is this isn't the (normal election) year by most standards. This is the year that Republicans are looking for purity," said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College.
"They want a candidate who has no flaws, no transgressions, no walk-backs for true conservatism. That's the nature of the debate right now. A lot of conservatives are afraid that they'll elect another appeaser who'll sell out the true conservatives and the conservative movement."
The Club for Growth described Santorum's record as "mixed." The National Taxpayers Union, which promotes fiscal conservatism, found that Santorum was more willing to slash spending when he wasn't facing an election.
"This is the record of solid stances on tax issues and many but not all spending issues," said Pete Sepp, a vice president of the group.
Sal Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, is a veteran California Republican strategist. He said that many people said they didn't support the tea party movement until they learned it was primarily for fiscal responsibility. "Then they support us overwhelmingly," Russo said.
He also said that tea party support for the various GOP candidates had "seesawed" throughout the campaign, though he pointed out that "Romney's been a consistent second choice."
Meckler, of Tea Party Patriots, said Santorum was doing well among tea party backers because of his conservative stands on social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage.
Meckler also said that tea party backers were still looking for their perfect conservative, but that they realized they wouldn't find one among the current GOP candidates.
"None of them are pure conservatives," he said. "They understand that in this election, they're not going to find this."
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