NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: It all started with this.
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RICK SANTORUM , R-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You win by giving people a choice. You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who is just going to be a little different from the person in there. If they're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have, instead of taking a risk on what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate.
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CAVUTO: Then, as you know, all hell just broke loose.
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NEWT GINGRICH, R-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the biggest development of the last 24 hours was Senator Santorum's remarkable mistake in suggesting that reelecting President Obama was acceptable under any circumstance.
And I just want to make very clear that I could not disagree with him more strongly.
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CAVUTO: And suddenly the whole spiral was viral and the rip on Rick was off and running.
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A.B. STODDARD, THE HILL: He blew up his message and he's failed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All he has done is provide reckless fodder for a president who doesn't need any more advantages.
STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: A monumentally stupid thing to say.
STODDARD: I think it's the end for Rick Santorum.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He actually is writing Barack Obama's campaign commercials.
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CAVUTO: They have all had their say.
Fair and balanced, we thought it was a good idea for Rick Santorum to have his. And in just moments, he will.
And to make sure we cover all of our bases, so will his top financial backer. Is he still backing him? We will ask Foster Friess, because, guess what, Foster Friess is here, and only here as well.
Welcome, everyone. I am Neil Cavuto.
And Mitt Romney just left it at a pithy statement: "I was disappointed to hear that Rick Santorum would rather have Barack Obama as president than a Republican. This election is more important than any one person. It is about the future of America. Any of the Republicans running would be better than President Obama and his record of failure."
Romney's spokesman was a bit more blunt, Ryan Williams saying -- and I quote -- "Senator Santorum is not only embarrassing himself with his ill-advised comments. He is damaging the conservative movement."
So many critics. Now it is time, Senator Rick Santorum here finally to respond. He joins us now on the phone.
Senator, good to have you.
A lot of folks say you committed political suicide.
SANTORUM: Oh, Neil, this is just laughable.
Yes, I'm out here running, sacrificing my time and my energy and my family, committed myself to traveling around this country, saying the highest priority of this country is to defeat Barack Obama, and what I was saying there is that, if we don't have a choice, than the American public may decide to keep Barack Obama.
That is all I have said. I have said it in every speech. This is the hatchet job of all time. I have said repeatedly that the number one primary is defeating Barack Obama. I would support anybody. And they said, would you support Ron Paul? Of course I would support him.
I would support anybody on the Republican ticket. And I said it throughout the course of this campaign. This is a Romney and a Gingrich campaign that cannot focus on the issues. And the issues are that they are uniquely disqualified from taking on President Obama on the biggest issues of the day.
That is the point I was making yesterday. It is the point I will continue to make. Mitt Romney and Romneycare -- we have the anniversary of Obamacare, which was a blueprint of Romneycare, that designed Obamacare.
And he stands by -- this is the amazing thing. He stands by government-run health care in Massachusetts. He stands by the imposition of an individual mandate, requiring everybody to purchase insurance, something that 75 percent of Americans are against.
And that is why I stood up and said, we need someone who can draw the starker contrasts on the things that are crushing this economy, driving up unemployment rates, exploding the size of the federal government, and someone who has a strong and clear track record.
CAVUTO: But you can see why they are confused, right, Senator?
SANTORUM: No, no, I can't.
CAVUTO: Senator, you said, "If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have, instead of taking a risk on what may be an Etch A Sketch candidate in the future."
Those are your words, Senator.
Well, I said we meaning we the people might, not me. I'm not saying -- I would never say -- I would never -- I have always said I would never vote for Barack Obama. Are you kidding me? What do you think I am doing this for? Do you think because I like Barack Obama and because -- it is so absurd, it is not even worth printing. But you folks are all wound up because, well, the idea of a we meaning a general we, as in the people, as opposed to meaning me.
CAVUTO: Well, Senator, I am not wound up. I'm talking about some conservative supporters of yours who were and are.
I'm talking about one of the pundits on air saying, "Faced with the reality, the chances of collapse, the sweater vest has unraveled."
Kevin Glass, the managing editor of Townhall, "Did everyone take stupid pills this week? How could he have not seen this coming?"
SANTORUM: This is silly/
CAVUTO: Now, are they just watching a different speech?
SANTORUM: Well, they just -- yes, they are, because when I said we, I meant the American public.
I have said it in every single speech. I have said it for a year, that if we don't give the people of America a contrast in this election, we are not going to be successful. That is the point I have been making. That's why I said that we need a strong conservative.
And to take that we, and say, oh, I meant me, that I wouldn't vote, no, I was saying the people may not vote for someone who they don't see as a different...
CAVUTO: OK. But, Senator, now, are you saying that people -- let's say some conservative members of the party would sooner stay home than vote for Mitt Romney, or vote for Barack Obama instead?
SANTORUM: I'm saying trying to win the election. We're trying to get the votes, the majority, to win the election. We need to have a contrast.
CAVUTO: But you're not saying that you, Rick Santorum, if Mitt Romney were the nominee, you're not saying that you wouldn't vote for him in that event?
SANTORUM: Neil, go back and look at every statement I have made about who I -- I have always said I would vote for the nominee of the Republican Party, no matter who it was.
This is a made-up story because we took we being the people, and made it we being me. That is just absurd. It's -- it's laughable. The idea that this is a gaffe is a joke. Every speech I give, I talk about how we have to have a sharp contrast, that we can't have someone who is just a little better than Barack Obama, and not better at all on the issue of health care.
He implemented Romneycare, defends the individual mandate and defends government-run health care at a state level. He supported cap-and-trade. He supported the idea of manmade global warming. And he supported the Wall Street bailouts. And he supported a whole host of things that have government control of people's lives that is grinding this economy to a halt. And that is why we need someone who can make Barack Obama the issue in this election, not the policies that he has supported that have failed this economy that Governor Mitt Romney has also supported.
CAVUTO: So, Senator, are you saying that Mitt Romney is not much different than Barack Obama?
SANTORUM: On those issues, he is not.
SANTORUM: Obviously, a difference on some other issues, but on those issues, he's not.
CAVUTO: Then, sir, then why four years ago did you say he was a true conservative? What changed in those four years?
SANTORUM: Well, a couple of things changed.
First off, he went out and supported the Wall Street bailout after he said he wasn't for government involvement and he wasn't for big government control of things. Secondly, he went out and advocated for Romneycare as the model for Obamacare.
This is someone who said, I believe in it on a state level, and then went out and advocated for the Massachusetts model, someone who didn't learn from the mistake that he made that he said he had repented on, that, yes, he had been on the wrong side of a variety of issues, but now he was going to run as a conservative.
Well, I took him for his word. I shouldn't have. The Etch A Sketch model is exactly what we have. We have someone who continues to reshape his message. Just look what he did last week in Puerto Rico, Neil. He went down to Puerto Rico, after I had the courage to stand up and tell the people of Puerto Rico when they asked, would you admit Puerto Rico as a state if only 15 percent of the people in Puerto Rico spoke English, I said no. English has to be taught in the schools. It has to be the official language of this country, as well as a state of Puerto Rico, and they would have to learn English, obviously as well as being able to speak and learn Spanish.
Well, I got huge blowback down there. So what did Romney do, someone who, like me, says English should be the official language of this country? He went down to Puerto Rico and said, no, I will admit Puerto Rico is a state even if you don't speak English.
This is the kind of pandering, the Etch A Sketch candidate that is going to get us in huge trouble in the general election, because there won't be defining differences, there won't be the issue of what does he have in his core believes vs. what Barack Obama at -- you know at his core believes.
CAVUTO: But, Senator, what is to stop people from listening to you now and obviously feel they're passionate about this, and saying, well, he clearly doesn't flip over Mitt Romney at all?
So, what is to stop them from saying, if -- this guy wouldn't support Mitt Romney as the nominee, he doesn't think he deserves the nomination, but if Mitt Romney were the nominee...
SANTORUM: I wouldn't be running against him if I thought he deserved the nomination.
CAVUTO: I know. But if he's the nominee, I'm saying, with all of these warts, all of these problems, he would still be better than Barack Obama?
CAVUTO: OK. OK.
CAVUTO: And you apply that to Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich as well?
Look, I think Ron Paul would be horrible on national security. I actually think Romney would be actually pretty good on national security. And so that is one area there would be a very clear difference. And I think Governor Romney has articulated positions and pretty much consistent with mine.
But on the core issues that are at stake in this election of government control of your life, that is where the problem is, and that is where I don't think the differences are. And I think those happen to be very important reasons in this election...
CAVUTO: I understand what you're saying, Senator, but you know what this hearkens back to? A lot of folks who were saying it was very similar to the sentiment expressed among conservatives in 1976, those who supported Ronald Reagan in his darn near victorious battle against an incumbent, President Gerald Ford, that they didn't vote for Jimmy Carter that year after Reagan narrowly lost. They just didn't vote that year.
What do you say to your supporters of yours, who despite your saying you would support Governor Romney, should he become the Republican nominee, who would say, no, they would rather be at home?
SANTORUM: You should support the Republican nominee.
Neil, last week, Governor Romney called me an economic lightweight, and why would we replace one economic lightweight with another? Now, did you go out and say, oh, obviously he is not going to support Rick Santorum? You replace one economic lightweight with another. Our campaign didn't say that. We understood...
CAVUTO: To be fair, Senator, I have talked to Governor Romney on this and many issues, would he support you as the nominee, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul? And he always has said yes. And the others have said that. And everyone says that. You are saying you would as well, right?
SANTORUM: I have always said yes. I have never said anything to the contrary.
CAVUTO: What do you think of the reaction that this is getting?
SANTORUM: Here's the point.
Because the Romney campaign has decided, since they cannot make the issue about what the issues are in this campaign, because he has failed to be able to convince the people of this country, and Republicans, and conservatives, that he is actually worthy of their support because they can trust him to do what they -- what he now at least says he wants to do, that they make it about things that aren't real issues.
I could have gone out and said, oh, Governor Romney, said the most insulting thing in the world that he said that he would vote for Barack Obama over me and that there is no difference.
But you know what? I don't play those games. I'm more focused on what voters care about. And what they care about is what you are going to do as president, not whether your campaign can spin a story.
CAVUTO: So when you hear this back-and-forth -- and you have heard it before, Senator -- you and I have discussed this before, that this back-and-forth, the later it drags on, however you want to characterize it, hurts whoever the nominee would be, whether it is you or whether it is Governor Romney, and that it will do serious damage to the party.
What do you say to that?
SANTORUM: Well, what is the serious damage of having Romney's top aide say that he is going to hit the reset button after the primary when he was asked if he has moved too far to the right, he is going to hit the reset button, take the Etch A Sketch out and start a whole new campaign?
Now, they can spin that any way they want, but this is what is the concern of Republicans and conservatives in this race, that we don't have anyone who really stands for the core convictions that the Republican Party, conservatives believes in. And that is why he is having trouble.
This nomination, given the fact that he is outspending every candidate 10-1, he has every endorsement, he has all the party backing, and yet can't close the deal. And he can't close the deal because people do not trust that he is someone that he now espouses to be, because he has always espoused what he needs to be in the election that is in front of him.
That is the problem. And that is why we need to get this nomination right. We need to go to a convention, if necessary, and make sure that we get a conservative nominee for our party.
CAVUTO: And if you don't do it this time around, is this Rick Santorum's way of saying, I'm really running for 2016?
SANTORUM: Oh, my gosh, you kidding me?
Neil, let me just tell you, this is -- this has been an amazing experience, but I'm not doing this for four years from now. I'm not doing this for any position.
I'm doing this because I think the country is in serious problems right now. And if Barack Obama is elected -- I say it every single speech, that if Barack Obama is reelected, the freedom that my grandfather and my father fought for and that generations of Americans fought for could very well be lost, and lost forever.
And as a result of that, the idea that I would even contemplate voting for Barack Obama over any Republican, period, is outrageous. And anyone that has followed my speeches and followed what I have done knows that. And this is why this is such a joke and a creation of the political Romney class, instead of real conservatives who understand what is at stake.
CAVUTO: All right.
Senator, very good having you. Be well.
SANTORUM: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
CAVUTO: Senator Rick Santorum.