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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus now to one of those candidates we heard Newt Gingrich criticize just now, Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator's virtual tie with Mitt Romney in Iowa gives him a new stature in the race for the Republican nomination. Santorum presents himself as the real conservative in the race, especially when it comes to social issues.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook looks back at his years in the U.S. capitol.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Santorum has been upsetting elections from the beginning. He was only 32 years old when he toppled a 7-term incumbent in a majority Democratic district in western Pennsylvania. Just four years later, Santorum rode the Republican wave of 1994 into the Senate.

And from the beginning, Santorum has stood for unwavering social conservatism.

RICK SANTORUM: Why would you kill your child: because your child's sick, because your child might not live long, why kill your child?

SEABROOK: This is Santorum on the floor of the Senate in 1997. It was among the first of many times he would lead the charge against a specific type of late abortion, called intact dilation and extraction. Opponents call it partial birth abortion.

SANTORUM: This unwarranted, unnecessary, unhealthful, dangerous, brutal, stabbing and killing of a baby who's this far away, three inches away from its first breath.

SEABROOK: Santorum's sharp, graphic language was often criticized by Democrats, who argued that the extremely rare procedure was sometimes necessary. The fight took years, with Santorum at the forefront. It wasn't until 2003, after the election of Republican President George W. Bush, that Santorum's Partial Birth Abortion Ban was signed into law.

It was upheld by the Supreme Court the following year. It is perhaps the single biggest accomplishment Santorum points to when he talks about his career in public service.

He also makes the case that he is fiscal conservative. During his Senate career, Santorum did speak out for balanced budgets, lower taxes and privatizing Social Security. But he was much more ardent when it came to defending increased funding, even as government was running up massive budget deficits.

SANTORUM: If the economy is strong, deficits go away.

SEABROOK: This is Santorum in the capitol in early 2003. He strongly supported President Bush's request for tens of billions of dollars to continue fighting the war in Afghanistan, and anywhere else Mr. Bush saw as necessary.

SANTORUM: I think the president believes, first and foremost, we need a strong economy. And we need to fight the war on terrorism and potentially that there may be other conflicts that we're going to engage in, and deficits have to take a backseat to that.

SEABROOK: Today, this idea that deficits have to take a backseat is anathema to the very definition of fiscal conservatism. It may be where Santorum is most vulnerable in the coming Republican primaries.

Time and again, Santorum supported Bush administration policies that ballooned the deficit. He voted for the Medicare prescription drug program, the No Child Left Behind education bill. He supported foreign aid. And every time President Bush came back to Congress asking for more money to fight and build infrastructure in Iraq, Santorum supported him.

SANTORUM: This is money that is absolutely necessary to fund our military effort, as well as to get this country up and going again.

SEABROOK: Still, it wasn't on the fiscal issues but on the social battles that Santorum made his name. When Democrats and Republicans worked together on the No Child Left Behind Act, Santorum fought for language challenging evolution and supporting the religious doctrine of intelligent design.

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the right of gay people to marry, Santorum led the charge for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. On the Senate floor, in the summer of 2004, Santorum said gay marriage is bad for children.

SANTORUM: Society should be all about creating the best possible chance for children to have a mother and to have a father. And unless the state endorses that, and unless our laws enforce that, then I think it's fairly obvious that our culture will not.

SEABROOK: And this is another place where Santorum may differ with more libertarian conservatives. Listen to how he describes them in this 2005 interview with NPR.

SANTORUM: They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do. We shouldn't get involved in bedroom. We shouldn't get involved in cultural issues. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world. And I think most conservatives understand that individuals can't go it alone, that there is no such society that I am aware of where we've had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

SEABROOK: Throughout his time in the Senate, Santorum argued instead that government has an important part to play in shepherding the American culture toward what he called a strong moral purpose.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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