MANCHESTER, N.H. — Facing fresh scrutiny after he nearly defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa's lead-off caucuses, Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum on Wednesday defended votes and statements that are earning him a second look for the wrong reasons.
Santorum, a former senator and House member, finished eight votes behind Romney in Iowa's contest and arrived here to questions about his support for home-state spending projects known as earmarks and for a recent comment about black people that has been criticized as being racially insensitive. He also sought to explain previous statements that likened same-sex relationships to bestiality.
"My Catholic faith teaches that it's actions that are the problems, not necessarily someone's feelings," Santorum said in a CNN interview. "One can have desires to do things that we believe are wrong, but it's when you act out on things, that's the problem."
Santorum, who spent much of the last year toiling as an also-ran in the polls, found a late surge in Iowa. He tapped into social conservatives' networks and visited every corner of the state.
An uphill climb greets Santorum in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he is scrambling to piece together an organization. At the same time, he is explaining his resume to voters who are seeing it for the first time.
"I don't believe that everything that is immoral should be illegal. The government doesn't have a role to play in everything that people of faith or no faith think is wrong or immoral," he told CNN.
Santorum also defended congressional spending designed to benefit pet projects. Tea partyers and fiscal conservatives criticize the process of slipping home-state spending into massive bills and say such "earmarks" in huge bills treat taxpayer money like a slush fund.
"When you go to Congress you fight to make sure that when taxes go from your state to Washington, D.C., you fight to make sure you get your fair share back," Santorum said, adding that other lawmakers do it. "The idea that earmarks are the problem in Washington, D.C., is just ridiculous."
Still, he has said he now opposes earmarks.
Santorum also tried to explain remarks he made in Iowa about Medicaid, a program for poor Americans. He was quoted as saying: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
In the CNN interview, Santorum said he "mumbled it and changed my thought" in mid-statement.
"I'm pretty confident I didn't say 'black,'" he said. "I've looked at it several times. I was starting to say one word and I sort of came up with a different word and then moved on." But, he conceded, "it sounded like black."
While Santorum defended his overall record in working on economic issues for black communities, civic and civil rights leaders criticized his remark.
"Sen. Santorum's targeting of African-Americans is inaccurate and outrageous and lifts up old race-based stereotypes about public assistance," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said.
"He conflates welfare recipients with African-Americans, though federal benefits are in fact determined by income level. In Iowa for example, only 9 percent of food stamp recipients are black, while 84 percent of recipients are white," Jealous said.
Santorum shrugged off the criticism and said his remark was "probably just a tongue-tied moment instead of something that was deliberate."