News analysis: Is Mitt Romney the 'worst Republican ever?'

Published: Monday, March 26 2012 1:36 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at William Jewell College on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 in Liberty, Mo.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Rick Santorum thinks Romney is the worst Republican to run on the issue of health care, but not the worst Republican. He would appreciate it if you got it straight. CBS News captured the video.

When New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny tried to suggest Santorum had said the latter, Santorum pushed back hard. Mediate reassembled the exchange as follows:

“What speech did you listen to?" Santorum said. "Stop lying! I said he was the worst Republican to run on the issue of Obamacare. And that’s what I was talking about! ... Would you guys quit distorting what I’m saying? ... I’ve been saying that at every speech. Quit distorting my words, if I see it, it’s bulls--t!" ... “Come on, man! What are you doing?”

“You sound upset about this,” Zeleny said.

“I’m upset when the media distorts what is I say,” Santorum hit back. “Yeah, I am. I do get upset. ‘Cause you know exactly what I was saying and you’re misrepresenting it. [...] What are you guys in the business of doing, reporting the truth or are you here to try to spin and make news? Stop it! You don’t care about the truth, do you? Asking that question shows you don’t care at all about the truth.”

Santorum's tension here follows quickly on this past weekend's flap, where the former Senator was forced to clarify that he would still vote for Romney over Obama. It was an odd position, given that contenders for a party nominee usually take an implicit vow to support the eventual nominee.

The weekend's flap came after Santorum on Thursday said, “You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there. If you’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future,” National Journal reported.

This led to a strange exchange Friday on CNN in which Santorum press secretary Alice Stewart tried to have it both ways, first calling Romney "a mirror image of Barack Obama." She added that "both believe in government takeover of health care, cap and trade, big government spending, Wall Street bailout," and "We can’t take Mitt Romney’s word that he’ll repeal and replace it."

And yet, she concluded later in the show “Rick has made it abundantly clear once a nominee is chosen he'll stand behind the nominee and do everything we can to replace Barack Obama.”

To which the collective punditry's response was: because ... why?

With any hope of the nomination slipping away, Santorum's heckler status is becoming a fixed meme, Politico suggests. So when the New York Times reporter tried to milk the theme on Monday, Santorum was in a touchy mood.

Santorum's fading hopes in this race were apparent in the subtext of his comments on winning Louisiana Saturday night. In his speech, he evoked Reagan's 1976 run against Gerald Ford:

“Ronald Reagan fought that battle in 1976 and he did something that had not been done since: as someone as a conservative running against the establishment, he won 11 states,” said Santorum in his address to supporters. “Well tonight, thanks to the great people of Louisiana, we have won our 11th state in this primary fight.”

The reference is a bit odd, considering that Reagan went on to lose the nomination and the schism in the party contributed to a narrow defeat to Jimmy Carter in November 1976. As a model of success, Santorum is almost openly signaling that he is hoping for a similar result — and, like Reagan, a more successful attempt four years down the road.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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