The audience at Rick Santorum’s first stop of the day Monday – a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in suburban Detroit - was a bit subdued at the top of his talk. Maybe they’d reached candidate speech threshold; maybe it was all the breakfast carbs.
Then Santorum’s remarks started moving into red meat territory, sliding from his early swipes at Mitt Romney to full frontal assaults on President Obama. He took aim at the president’s policy on religion, and blasted the alleged negative impact of the administration’s energy policy. Santorum told the crowd that the average life expectancy in 1935 was 61 years, which meant that Social Security was designed so only a minority of Americans would ever have a chance to draw benefits – and that he was the only candidate bold enough to acknowledge that fact. With each statement, the crowd’s reaction grew more animated. By the end, he’d seemingly won them over completely; as his time on stage ended, the room rose in a spontaneous standing ovation. “He seemed to get a lot better later on,” said supporter Paul Bonenfant. “He just got so much more comfortable up there.”
Here’s the problem: none of those crowd-rousing statements yesterday were entirely true. Sometimes it was the sort of mistake anyone could make (although anyone with actual policy knowledge probably shouldn’t): the difference between life expectancy at birth and the life expectancy of working adults. Others were much harder to mistake. The country isn’t increasingly dependent on foreign oil thanks to President Obama. And it isn’t quite accurate to say that “people of faith” no longer have the “right to come to the public square and express their points of view or practice their faith outside of their church” – since Santorum, a person of faith, has repeatedly and vocally expressed his point of view in daily appearances that have involved every region of the country.
These statements weren’t one-offs or simple slips. They are claims that Santorum has made repeatedly on the trail, despite critical coverage and nonpartisan fact checks. But let’s be honest here: Rick Santorum isn’t some lone offender.
Reliance on these sorts of statements is the sugar high of presidential campaigning: the quick rush they get from the crowd response can be addictive for politicians, assuming they can avoid the crash. ALL the candidates, no matter their political persuasion, have been dispensing their fair share of truth-bending crowd pleasers this year: facts that sound like they could be true – but aren’t quite. Sometimes, it’s a stat or release that leaves out just enough material to change a claim from completely true to just a bit misleading (like the Romney campaign’s emails plugging newspaper endorsements, with the candidate-critical paragraphs sliced out.) Other times, the claim is so far from the truth that the light from true would take 10,000 years to reach its home planet. Either way, the statements present voters with a distorted view of reality.
By this time tomorrow, the Michigan and Arizona primaries will be over, and the candidates will move on. So will we. But before we go, we thought it was worth pointing out the top five KTHs of the primary contests that were.
Fuzzy Memories: Mitt Romney’s Michigan roots are very real. He was born and raised here, and so was his wife Ann. His dad was a prominent auto executive here, then governor of the state and, as a presidential candidate, one of the highest-profile Michigan politicians in the nation. Wherever he landed as an adult, his original ties to the state are authentic.
Which makes a few recent misfires he’s made citing his home state cred all the more confusing. First came a gauzy ad about his love for Michigan that featured a black-and-white photo of Romney and his father actually gazing out over...the New York World’s Fair. Then, this week, he shared an emotional moment with a Tea Party crowd when he recalled “the Golden Jubilee” – the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the American automobile. He told the audience that his “memory is a little foggy here” but that he was "probably 4 or something like that" that day.
"My dad had a job being the grandmaster. They painted Woodward Ave. with gold paint," Romney told them. But as the Toronto Star reported, the only way Romney could have witnessed the event would have been “time travel”: “The Golden Jubilee described so vividly by Romney was indeed an epic moment in automotive lore. The parade included one of the last public appearances by an elderly Henry Ford. And it took place June 1, 1946 – fully nine months before Romney was born.”
Air Wars: In one 10-minute stretch on local TV yesterday, I caught 7 attack spots. There were so many questionable claims, it’s almost impossible to pick the worst offender. But for subtlety, my vote goes to “Your Side,” from the Santorum campaign. "Who's on the side of Michigan workers?” asks the ad’s voiceover. "Not Romney… he supported the Wall Street bailouts, while turning his back on Michigan workers." That’s a tough attack in a state where a lot of people are pretty happy with the way the auto bailout turned out. But watching this spot, you’d never know Santorum’s position was... more or less the same as Romney’s. He also opposed the auto bailout. He also thought the car companies should enter structured bankruptcy. And he said the government had no role to play in the crisis. “Allow the capitalist system to work,” he told C-Span just last month, explaining his continued opposition to the policy. “...that’s what I believe in.”
Super PAC Facts: This morning, at Mitt Romney’s first press availability in almost three weeks, a reporter asked him whether his campaign wasn’t just a bit too cozy with Restore Our Future, the Romney-supporting Super PAC directed by his former aides. Romney’s response, in part, was that “this idea that people are limited in giving to a campaign, and that they are unlimited in giving to SuperPac — and that therefore the campaign can’t guide the very advertisement that’s affecting its future makes no sense at all. I think our campaign finance laws ought to be thrown out and rewritten to remove this extraordinary anomaly.” Maybe they should. But even given those current regulations, the line between Super PACs and the candidates they support has never been murkier.
Over the past week alone, in fact, a report revealed that Romney’s consultants and Super PACs share office space and vendors and Restore Our Future essentially re-released an ad originally produced by Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. Of course, Romney’s far from alone; all the candidates have confronted these sorts of questions over the past few weeks.
President Obama isn’t part of this Michigan primary fight, but he made a special Election Day stop in the state to address the auto workers union, so it’s only fair to note that he belongs on this list too: the financial reasons for his recent Super PAC reversal may be obvious. But the shift means that now, his actions and his words don’t quite match up.
The Politics of the Pump: Gas prices are back in the spotlight lately, just in time for the race here in car country – but one candidate in particular has made it the centerpiece of his campaign. Newt Gingrich has attacked President Obama as the “$10 a gallon” president, and made his pledge to lower gas prices a signature issue of his presidential bid. “I've developed a program for American energy so no future president will ever bow to a Saudi king again and so every American can have $2.50-a-gallon gasoline,” he told voters at CNN’s Arizona debate in Mesa last week.
But experts have long said that it’s virtually impossible for government to take any action that is guaranteed to lower gas prices for any extended length of time, as Gingrich has promised – let alone lower them that dramatically. Even if the top priorities in his plan were all put into effect immediately, it would barely be enough to budge the price of gas by a couple of cents.
It’s worth noting, of course, that President Obama isn’t just a target on this issue; he’s no stranger to the temptation of playing politics with the pump himself.
Dirty Tricks: The Romney campaign has spent the past 24 hours blasting Santorum for his alleged complicity in trying to convince Michigan Democrats looking to sabotage Mitt Romney to back his candidacy.
At his Michigan headquarters this morning, Romney himself made the charge right at the top of his remarks to local volunteers. “The Santorum campaign is making calls to Democrats today, all right. So we want to make sure to get Republicans out to vote,” he said. “We want this to be a process where Republicans choose our Republican nominee. We don't want the Democrats to choose who they think is the easiest person to run against.”
The implication: Rick Santorum approves of – or at least, stands to benefit from - Operation Hilarity, a Democratic effort. And the only reason Democrats might support him is to guarantee a GOP loss this fall.
Let’s look at the argument he’s making: that strategically voting for the weakest candidate in an opposing party is “politics at its worst. It doesn't get much more pathetic,” as Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades put it in a fundraising email to supporters Monday that blamed President Obama and the DNC for the effort.
That position would represent a shift for Mitt Romney. The last time he ran for president, when he was trying to explain his decision to vote in the 1992 Democratic primary in Massachusetts, he seemed to have a different point of view on the tactic: "In Massachusetts, if you register as an independent, you can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary," he told ABC back in 2007. "When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I’d vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for the Republican."
When Romney himself was questioned about that comment today, he offered another element to the explanation: despite the emphasis on party loyalty in his original remarks, he wasn’t actually voting for the weakest Democratic candidate. He was actually voting against the weakest Democratic leader – in other words, for a more formidable opponent – for the good of the country: “I was certainly voting against the Democrat who I thought was the - the person I thought would be the worst leader of our nation.”
But Santorum’s got some previous remarks of his own that may require a bit of explanation too. Today, he dismissed Romney’s complaint about potential Democratic interference in the Republican nominating process as sour grapes. “That’s what bullies do – when you hit them back, they whine,” he said. But a few weeks ago, when it came to this issue, he actually sounded a lot like Mitt Romney does today.
“(S)tates should only allow Republicans to vote in Republican primaries," he said during a tele-townhall with Minnesota voters last month. “Why? because it's the Republican nomination, not the independent nomination or the Democratic nomination. If you're a Democrat and you want to be a Democrat, then vote in the Democratic primary, not the Republican. If you want to vote in the Republican Party, then become one."
Tomorrow the candidates will continue on their quest for the nomination. We’ll be Keeping Them Honest every night on AC360° at 8 and 10 p.m. ET.