Santorum Reasserts Himself in Florida Debate

Santorum Reasserts Himself in Florida Debate

By Scott Conroy - January 27, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Rick Santorum isn't used to getting asked the first question of a presidential debate.

Throughout the campaign, he has always been one of the underdogs on stage, before and after his surprising Iowa victory, and the former Pennsylvania senator has often faded in the glow of other candidates.

But at the latest Republican face-off here on Thursday, debate moderator Wolf Blitzer gave Santorum the first and last word of the night, and the candidate who is running a distant third here appeared up to the challenge of nudging himself back into the conversation in what has become a two-man narrative in Florida.

“I think we’re getting better at every debate,” Santorum told RCP shortly after the latest in the seemingly endless series of candidate forums had ended. “After 17 or 18 of them, you hopefully should be getting pretty good.”

On a night when Newt Gingrich did not appear to be at his most effective, Santorum took the initiative to land some of his own shots on Mitt Romney over the health care plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts.

The health care issue has long been considered one of Romney's greatest vulnerabilities, but he has rarely faced the kind of sustained and effective criticism of it that most observers expected would come his way from opponents in the campaign.

After Romney defended once again the universal health care plan that he enacted as governor, Santorum was ready to pounce with one of the most memorable exchanges of the night.

“What Gov. Romney just said is that government-run, top-down medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts and he supports it,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “Now, think about what that means.”

When Romney cut his opponent off and protested that the law did not carry a government plan and was intended to eliminate free-riders from the system, Santorum did not give an inch.

“Just so I understand this, in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, to buy health insurance,” Santorum said with a slightly bemused expression. “And if you don't, you have to pay a fine.”

The exchange between Santorum and Romney continued for a few more minutes, as Gingrich and Ron Paul stood by and watched.

Santorum’s ability to engage Romney so directly was in and of itself something of a win for a candidate who had been in danger of becoming an afterthought in this two-man show.

Santorum received strong crowd reaction throughout the night by seizing the kinds of moments that have more typically belonged to Gingrich in past debates.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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