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Rick Santorum: A Conservative Who Once Defended Labor Unions, Gays In Military, Art Funding

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WASHINGTON -- "Piss Christ," Andres Serrano's photograph of a plastic Jesus submerged in a jar of urine, caused outrage when it was exhibited in the U.S. in 1989. The photo caused a stir not just for its content, but for the National Endowment for the Arts' association with the work. Conservative politicians in Washington pounced, and soon the NEA became a target.

The controversial photo, along with Robert Mapplethorpe's NEA-endorsed homoerotic nudes, helped define the early-'90s culture wars. Legislation aimed at shuttering the NEA became annual ritual in Congress.

But one conservative chose to sit out the NEA floggings: then-Rep. Rick Santorum. The current GOP front-runner voted repeatedly against measures to defund the agency.

Santorum said he supported the NEA because it helped keep afloat less controversial subject matter in his state, Pennsylvania. A 1997 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story quoted a statement from Santorum, by then a senator, defending the endowments: "many highly acclaimed orchestras, fine arts programs and performing arts groups in Pittsburgh and across the state rely on NEA funding."

In his statement, Santorum went on to defend the arts in a way that even an NPR tote-bag carrying Democrat could love: ''The arts foster a strong sense of community and bring new ideas and cultures to many individuals and families all over the nation. Elimination of such programs would create a cultural vacuum that could not be easily filled.''

The Washington Times recently pointed out that Santorum had plenty of opportunities to change his mind -- voting to protect the NEA's funding for every year during his stint in the House and, for three consecutive votes in the Senate from 1997 through 1999.

The votes were just some of the reasons that the American Conservative Union, the oldest grassroots conservative lobbying group, well known for its sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference, gave Santorum less than perfect ratings during much of his time in office. After his first year in office in 1991, the American Conservative Union slapped him with an 80 out of a possible 100 score. The following year, he scored an 83.

Larry Hart, the conservative group's director of government relations, attributed Santorum's less-than-perfect conservative rating to the politician's voting record on the NEA, along with support of labor union protections, tobacco taxes, and preservation of wilderness. "I don't want to comment," Hart said of the Santorum votes. "They are what they are."

Santorum also voted against an amendment that would require the Department of Defense to ask those entering the armed forces if they are gay and if they've ever had gay sex. Nevertheless, Hart said Santorum fits his group's definition of a conservative.

"We considered an ACU conservative or solid conservative an 80 or above," Hart explained to Huff Post.

In 1993, the American Conservative Union hit Santorum with a 70 rating.

Santorum's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

Nearly 20 years later, those ratings are coming back to haunt him -- proof of the challenge of running for president after years of voting in Washington. In the recent Arizona debate and on the campaign trail, rival presidential contender Mitt Romney has begun to attack Santorum's conservative credentials. Romney has knocked the former senator on spending votes, his support of No Child Left Behind and endorsement of fellow Pennsylvanian, Sen. Arlen Specter.

The American Conservative Union was merely quantifying what Santorum associates had already known -- that he began his political career in the moderate wing of the Republican Party.

Santorum first got his start in politics while attending Penn State in the 1970s. It was there that he volunteered for John Heinz's senatorial campaign. An American Spectator analysis of American Conservative Union scores slams Heinz as a moderate Republican version of John Kerry.

On Oct. 26, 1976, The Daily Collegian, Penn State's independent student newspaper, interviewed Santorum about his support of Heinz.

“Rick Santorum (1st – political science), president of the Students for Heinz organization, said he was working for Heinz because he shares similar views with the candidate, especially in the area of mental health and senior citizens.

Santorum said also that his support was for Heinz because ‘he is a better representative of the entire state of Pennsylvania. Heinz is for the state, and not just for special interests in Philadelphia.’”

In 1976, when Heinz was still a congressman, he earned a 21 rating from the American Conservative Union. The following year, Heinz' first as senator, he got a 33 rating.

When Santorum campaigned for his own senate seat in student government, he ran on a platform President Barack Obama might admire. In a 1977 campaign ad in the Daily Collegian, Santorum promised "doing all I can in the areas of rent control, quality of housing, and especially in the area of consumer protection."

it was at Penn State that Santorum interned for Pennsylvania state Sen. J. Doyle Corman. Corman, a Republican, told Huff Post he made no secret of the fact that he was pro-choice. Huff Post reported last week that it was a belief Santorum shared -- and something the Santorum campaign subsequently denied.

"We first met Rick when he was a sophomore at Penn State," Corman said. "We took an immediately liking to him ... I was very impressed with his ingenuity, the way he could help solve problems for people that called in."

Santorum had less passion for Ronald Reagan and the icon's followers. According to a 1995 Philadelphia Magazine profile, a friend recalled: “There was a Youth for Reagan group on campus, but Rick shunned them. He always described them as right-wing fringe. But I don't think he gave it much thought. Through three years in the College Republicans with Rick, I never heard him actually discuss issues.”

After receiving his MBA from University of Pittsburgh, Santorum had to decide whether to work for then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh or return to Corman's office as his chief of staff. He chose Corman. "I would say he was very conservative," Corman explained. "He, too, believed in smaller government and trying to get people to pull their own weight."

Santorum also attended Dickinson Law School, graduating with a law degree in 1986. Mark Podvia, a former classmate, said there was no doubt Santorum was conservative. But he says the future politician never brought up his Christian faith or social issues like abortion. "I don't remember ever having a discussion with him on that," Podvia said.

As U.S. senator, Santorum's voting record became more conservative and closer to his own true-conservative talking points on the campaign trail. In 2000, he scored a 100 American Conservative Union rating. In 2006, his last year in office, he got a 96.

Jeff Mondak, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, compared the early version of Santorum to Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, "who pretty much defines common-sense conservative." Mondak said Lugar's American Conservative Union scores were similar to Santorum's.

"Santorum certainly was more moderate when in the House than he now casts himself. I'd characterize his House years as being ideologically in-line with a standard rank-and-file Republican, or perhaps slightly moderate by Republican norms at the time," explained Mondak, who was on the political science faculty at the University of Pittsburgh during Santorum's tenure in the House and during his first Senate term.

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