Ron Paul about Rick Santorum: Is this dude serious?

Something about Rick Santorum must really get under Ron Paul’s skin. This weekend, the Texas congressman said Santorum’s voting record in the Senate was “atrocious.” Today, his campaign released an ad to run in Michigan that calls Santorum “fake,” a fiscal conservative poser.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier has a theory as to why this ad won’t work:

However – and this is the “but” – the point of this ad shows the difficulties that Paul and Mitt Romney will have in driving up Mr. Santorum’s negatives. Yes, we’ve lumped Paul and Mr. Romney together here on purpose, since they have pretty good relations and Romney is also trying to outmaneuver Santorum to his right.

Santorum is pretty clearly conservative, in the traditional, social sense, due to his positions on abortion and other hot-button issues. To try to separate out the fiscal part of conservatism and brand Santorum unstable on that is a difficult political task, since voters will be predisposed to equate his social conservatism with overall conservatism. …

You can see this reflected in the latest numbers out of Michigan. Take the Public Policy Polling survey released Sunday, in which Santorum leads Romney overall, 37 to 33 percent. Break down the demographics, and you’ll see that Santorum has a double-digit lead among voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” – 54 to 23 percent. He leads among tea party adherents by 55 to 20 percent.

“Santorum’s advantage over Romney seems to be a reflection of voters being more comfortable with where he is ideologically,” concludes a PPP data analysis.

That may be — but I happen to think Rick Santorum is also genuinely more fiscally conservative today than he was as a senator during George W. Bush’s administration. Voters understand how he has come to be a deficit reduction hawk because they’ve traveled the same journey. They don’t penalize him for his growth in that area the same way they penalize Mitt Romney’s flip-flops — because a gradual change of opinion on fiscal matters makes more sense to them than an abrupt shift on matters of presumed deep conviction.

Ron Paul has advocated a reduction in the size of government for a long time and it’s fair of him to want to be recognized for that. But why does it frustrate him that Santorum has come around to his fiscal message?

Rick Santorum voted for a debt ceiling increase five time when he was in the Senate, yes — but this is now. Before last summer, it was unprecedented to harness a routine vote to increase the debt ceiling to attempt to achieve conservative gains. Last summer’s deal fell short of what the nation needed — but it still represented a novel attempt to take debt and deficit reduction seriously. It’s encouraging that today’s Republican candidates consider a debt ceiling increase what it is — a license to spend more money we don’t have — and are willing to stand up to business as usual. Again, Rick Santorum’s move to the right on spending mirrors the movement of the Republican Party as a whole and proceeds from the reality that, as time has gone on, the fiscal outlook of the nation has become both more dire and more apparent to those who are paying attention. Would Ron Paul, that champion of fiscal conservatism, rather see Rick Santorum remain in favor of routine debt ceiling increases?

Meanwhile, the Rick Santorum response to this ad is also true. “For all of Ron Paul’s blustering about conservatism, the bottom line is that he’s been in Congress for decades and has not had a single accomplishment to forward the cause of conservatism. Not one,” Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley told CNN. Paul’s lack of legislative accomplishments and his own hypocritical embrace of earmarks make this ad ring hollow.

My personal theory is this: Both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul speak with sincerity. Both have deeply-held convictions. Yes, Rick Santorum has a more positive view of government than Ron Paul and also, obviously, engages actively on social issues, from which Ron Paul shies away. Plus, they’re diametrically opposed on foreign policy. But the real threat Rick Santorum poses to Ron Paul is this: Santorum rivals Paul in his willingness to say what is unpopular. Ron Paul’s great appeal, especially to young people, is his candor — and Rick Santorum has got that, too.