Mitt Romney is enduring some post-primary teasing after Rick Santorum won in Mississippi and Alabama only hours after Romney said "Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign."
But the former Massachusetts governor's premature eulogy was only part of an exchange with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that contained other statements worth dissecting. Here's a transcript:
Blitzer: "The super PAC that supports Rick Santorum has come out with a very tough commercial, a very tough attack ad against you. I'll play a little clip and then we'll get your response."
Ad: "Mitt created Romneycare, the blueprint for Obamacare. And just like Obama, Romney left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt. Who can win? Rick Santorum."
Blitzer: "All right, I'm gonna give you a chance to respond to Rick Santorum's super PAC."
Romney: "Well, you know, it's been interesting that Fact Check has looked at Rick Santorum's claims over the last several ads and the things he's said, and I think in almost every case, they've said that Rick Santorum's attacks have been baseless and wrong. I think they have something called Pinocchios. They gave him four Pinocchios or something like that. I'm not gonna get into discussing various ads, but obviously we left Massachusetts with over a $2 billion rainy day fund and a balanced budget, so I'm afraid his conclusions are exactly wrong. But you know, Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects and, frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way to do that."
For starters, it's worth noting that Romney drew no distinction between Santorum's official campaign and the super PAC Red White and Blue, which supports the former Pennsylvania senator's candidacy. Romney, himself, has been accused of blurring the line between his campaign and the super PAC Restore Our Future, which has spent almost $34 million on his behalf.
He has insisted, however, that his campaign and the super PAC do not collaborate, which would be illegal. "We know the law," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho told The New York Times last month, "and we abide by it scrupulously."
The Red White and Blue ad claims Romney left Massachusetts with $1 billion in debt. Romney countered by saying he left Massachusetts with a balanced budget — an assertion related to the state's annual deficit (or lack thereof), not its cumulative debt. He also said he left with $2 billion in Massachusetts' rainy day fund.
Budget documents show Romney's statements are true, even if they don't directly address the ad's criticism. Massachusetts' stabilization fund balance was $2.1 billion at the end of the 2006 fiscal year, the last in which Romney was governor for the entirety. Subtracting the stabilization fund balance and the designated fund balance, the budget still ran a surplus of $106.2 million that year.
The Santorum super PAC's $1 billion debt figure is puzzling. Had Massachusetts' outstanding debt actually been $1 billion when Romney left office, he would have been hailed as a miracle worker. The state's debt was $16 billion at the end of fiscal 2003, Romney's first in office, and it rose to $18.5 billion on his watch.
Red, White and Blue's implication seems to be that the universal healthcare system championed by Romney put Massachusetts in the hole. But an extensive appraisal of Romney's healthcare program by the Globe last spring showed that is not the case.
The program's total cost was about $2.1 billion in fiscal 2012, but the state's share was only $406 million — a large, but manageable, sum according to Jay Gonzalez, the state's secretary of administration and finance.
"This has not come close to breaking the state's bank," Gonzalez told the Globe in June.
As for Santorum's poor fact checking record, Romney's assertion was technically true but somewhat misleading. Romney said his rival had received "four Pinocchios," a reference to The Fact Checker blog maintained by The Washington Post.
The Fact Checker did give Santorum four Pinocchios for this claim, made March 7 in Steubenville, Ohio: "What we will go to in a very short period of time, the next two years, a little less than 50 percent of the people in this country depend on some form of federal payment, some form of government benefit to help provide for them. After Obamacare, it will not be less than 50 percent; it will be 100 percent."
Writer Glenn Kessler found both statistics cited by Santorum to be suspect.
Santorum also earned four Pinocchios for claiming Obama wants every American to go to college so he can "remake [them] in his image," and for citing a study that he said showed "62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it." The first claim was false; the second was misleading. Santorum's "62 percent" claim was in the ballpark, but the study, published by the Social Science Research Council, actually showed people who never attend college give up religion at a higher rate than those who do.
Romney raised Santorum's recent Fact Checker ratings in the context of a conversation about attacks against Romney, but the Pinnochios were actually awarded for attacks against President Obama.
Overall, Santorum is averaging 2.38 Pinnochios per fact check. Romney is averaging two.
Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.