Santorum Denies McCain Charge He Was a Big Spender in Congress

DUBLIN, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum today defended his record on earmarks and dismissed Sen. John McCain’s accusations that he was a big spender during his 16 years in Congress.

Speaking during a town hall meeting to a packed school auditorium, the former two-term Pennsylvania Senator said earmarks are hardly the cause of the burgeoning federal deficit, and he accused McCain of ignoring the real driver of government spending: entitlement programs coveted by senior citizens in his home state of Arizona. McCain has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and has been attacking Santorum on the spending issue all week.

“Some have been hammering away at me that I’m this big spender because I support earmarks,” Santorum said. “Earmarks are not insignificant because every dollar counts. But the idea that because someone earmarks that they’re somehow an irresponsible spender is just absurd.

“The big problem in the federal government with spending is not earmarks, it’s entitlement programs,” Santorum continued. “Candidly, this is John McCain trying to put his imprimatur on the Republican, conservative movement. John McCain very rarely supported entitlement reform. He came from Arizona, an older state, and ran to the hills with anything ever having to do with seniors’ benefits.”

Santorum is correct that earmarks are a small part of the federal budget. But they have come to symbolize profligate and corrupt spending in conservative and tea party circles. The House and Senate have generally banned earmarks, though the ban is occasionally skirted.

Santorum said he would not reveal a specific plan to reduce the deficit in five years, if he is elected president. “I’m not going to spell out specifically, I’m not going to create an opposition research textbook for my opponents, but I’ve said in broad terms how we’re going to balance the budget in five years,” he said.

Santorum is in the midst of a busy New Hampshire campaign swing as he seeks to capitalize on his surprise showing in the Iowa caucuses. He finished just eight votes behind Romney, the winner in that race and the favorite to take the Granite State primary on Tuesday.

The latest daily tracking poll showed Romney in front at 40 percent, with Santorum in third place, but rising, at 11 percent. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) was in second with 17 percent.

Santorum was scheduled to make five stops throughout Southern New Hampshire today. Romney, who began the day campaigning in South Carolina, was set for one event this evening in Tilton.