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For Santorum, ‘Team’ Is First

Having just staked his credibility on returning a moderate colleague to the Senate, conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is finding himself in a somewhat unfamiliar spot on the political spectrum, winning slaps on the back from establishment insiders and quizzical looks from some “movement” conservatives.

Santorum, in recent years the chamber’s leading social conservative, is still reaping praise from within the Senate Republican Conference — the ideologically diverse caucus he chairs — for the assistance he gave moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in fighting off a primary challenge from the right.

Specter’s primary campaign offered the most obvious example of how Santorum has sought to put the work of the Republican Conference ahead of the ideological purity that his conservative supporters and his liberal detractors alike have come to expect.

Santorum, the third highest ranking Republican in the Senate leadership, makes no apologies for his decision to back Specter. Santorum said that once he made the decision to support his home-state colleague, there was only one way for him go about it — full throttle.

“I don’t do anything with the intent of not winning,” he said last week. “I don’t do anything to lose.” That approach, he said, will govern both his upcoming effort to re-elect President Bush as well as his bid for a third Senate term in 2006.

Santorum, who turned 46 on Monday, waves off any questions about his future ambitions, particularly the race to succeed Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) at the end of 2006, when Frist is expected to retire from the Senate. But Santorum’s colleagues said that his efforts to aid Specter, as well as Bush and other Senate candidates, are sure to be noted.

“That was a courageous thing to do,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), adding that it would help demonstrate Santorum’s commitment to the so-called “Old Bull” veterans who have tended to view him mostly as a firebrand. “He reaches across the philosophical barriers,” Lott said.

Another GOP Senator, requesting anonymity, said Santorum’s efforts demonstrated that he lived up to the “team player” concept that the Republican Conference chairman himself speaks of so frequently — namely, looking out for the best interests of a conference that had long ago agreed that Specter was a better general-election candidate than Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who ran an aggressively conservative race.

Pointing to Specter’s razor-thin 12,000-vote edge, this Senator said of Santorum: “Most importantly, he delivers.”

Santorum said his decision was prompted only by what he thought was best for his state and his own personal values. He flatly rejected claims that his support of Specter was tantamount to abandoning his conservative positions.

“I did what I think is the right thing,” Santorum said. “I don’t think there is anything I have done that is inconsistent with the causes I believe in.”

But Santorum’s comfort with his decision has not swayed all conservatives. Santorum’s actions in the Specter-Toomey race kicked off a debate among the conservative activists who have been his main base of support since he was elected in the Republican tsunami of November 1994.

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