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Santorum defends use of profanity in response to reporter

Rick Santorum pumped his fist while speaking with reporters in Green Bay, Wisc.AP

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum isn’t backing off his use of a swear word directed at a New York Times reporter Sunday night, likening the episode to standing up to a bully. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s campaign is characterizing Santorum as “increasingly shrill.”

“I criticized Romney and Obama for their outrageous health care legislation,” Santorum wrote in an e-mail to supporters, which asked backers to donate the cost of a Times subscription to the campaign. “Predictably, I was aggressively attacked by a New York Times reporter all too ready to defend the two of them, and all too ready to distort my words. Let me assure you, I didn’t back down, and I didn’t let him bully me.”

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Santorum used the cuss word during an exchange with Times reporter Jeff Zeleny after a speech at the South Hill Country Club in Franksville, Wis.

“I said, ‘Do you think that Mitt Romney is really the worst Republican in the country to run against Obama?’ — which is what he said,” Zeleny recounted on CNN Sunday night. “And he said, ‘I didn’t say that. You guys are distorting what I’m saying. … Quit distorting my words. It’s [expletive].’”

Santorum offered a similar account to Fox News on Monday morning: “I just said, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of this you-know-what.’”

Zeleny’s question was based on a statement the former Pennsylvania senator made during his address at the country club.

“Why would we put someone up who is uniquely — pick any other Republican in the country — he is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama. Why would Wisconsin want to vote for someone like that?”

Santorum made a similar comment earlier Sunday during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“We want someone who can win,” Santorum told CBS News’ Chief White House correspondent Nora O’Donnell, “someone who can go up against Barack Obama and actually draw a contrast on the big issues of the day, like health care and on energy, where Governor Romney has just been dead wrong on those issues for years and years and years, and would be probably the worst candidate for us to nominate to go after Barack Obama on gas prices and on government takeover and health care.”

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Santorum contended that Zeleny’s question took the “worst candidate” label out of its proper context — within a conversation about health care. As Massachusetts governor, Romney advocated for and signed a health care reform law that included an individual insurance mandate.

The White House on Sunday called Romney the “godfather” of President Obama’s national health care reform law, which also included an individual mandate. Romney has promised to repeal Obama’s health care law if elected, but Santorum has said repeatedly that Romney’s own health care record makes him “uniquely disqualified” to oppose Obama in a general election.

“Governor Romney is a good man, and has a lot of strengths,” Santorum said on Fox News, “but his singular weakness is the singular biggest issue in this race, and it’s the singular best opportunity to take it to Barack Obama.”

The Romney campaign responded to Santorum Monday in an e-mail to the Globe.

“Senator Santorum is becoming increasingly shrill as his campaign hopes fade,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. “It’s important that all Republicans keep their focus on President Obama because if we want to repeal Obamacare, we need to defeat him first. Obamacare is bad policy and bad law, and when Mitt Romney is president, he will get rid of it.”

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Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@gmail.com.