Santorum and Romney Clash Over Super-PAC Ads [Updated]

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Santorum left the sweater-vest in the locker room. Photo: ERIC GAY/2011 AFP

After waiting fifteen minutes to speak in tonight's Fox-sponsored Republican presidential candidate debate, Rick Santorum finally got a question ... about Mitt Romney's attack ads. But Santorum used his time well, defending his so-called positive, issues-focused campaign.

One of the moderators, Juan Williams, directed Santorum: "Senator Santorum — you've said that Governor Romney is guilty of distorting your record, as well as lies and hypocrisy. That it's 'classic Romney', and no one's holding him accountable. Should these personal attacks against fellow Republicans be abandoned by the candidates?"

According to Santorum, a pro-Romney super-PAC attacked him for supporting legislation that would allow felons to vote from prison. So Santorum flatly asked Romney, "Do you believe people who are felons, who served their time, should they be given the right to vote?"

Romney responded, "First of all, as you know the PACs that run ads on various candidates, as we unfortunately know —."

"I'm looking for an answer to the question first," Santorum cut him off.

"I'll do it in the order I want to do," Romney fired back, asserting himself as Top Dog.

And then the exchange evolved into an important conversation about super-PACs and their role in this race for the Republican nomination. Romney stood firm with a dismissive smirk as if Santorum was merely an annoyance.

After clarifying the ad that Santorum referred to, Romney said, referencing ads by super-PACs, "That's something that's completely out of the control of candidates. I hope they take it off the ad or make it correct."

"If I have something in the super-PAC that was misrepresenting me — stop it," Santorum declared.

And then Santorum backed Romney down with the substance of the attack ad, claiming that the law in Massachusetts under Romney was more permissive with voting rights for felons, even allowing those on probation and parole to vote.

Romney simply nodded and uttered, "Ok. Ok."

Santorum eventually pushed Romney for an answer, whether Romney believes that felons who have served their time and exhausted their probationary period should be allowed to vote.

"I don't think people who committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again," Romney said.

Santorum won the exchange. He also put super-PACs at the forefront and forced Romney, on a big stage, to either dismiss or take ownership of the super-PAC ad that by law is supposed to exist separately from the candidate. Whether they do, who knows, but as long as super-PACs pour millions into harsh, truth-distorting advertisements, this kind of conversation will happen again.

Update: Given an opportunity to address super-PACs late in the debate, Mitt Romney said he would like to get rid of them and allow Americans to contribute to campaigns directly so candidates could take responsibility for the substance of the ads. Romney said he wished the current campaign finance laws would be done away with, ending the strange involvement of super-PACs.

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