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Rick Santorum’s latest debate foe is a South Carolina voter

As he has shown on the debate stage recently, Rick Santorum, who has campaigned more frequently in South Carolina than any of his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, is not easily knocked off his stride.

On Tuesday afternoon, in a Chick-Fil-A fast-food joint here in Anderson, the former Pennsylvania senator had the kind of exchange with a voter that illustrated how even the best debate moderator has nothing on a concerned citizen in an early voting state.

As Santorum sipped a peach milkshake, Ana Chudkosky, a 30-year-old former gymnast and fitness instructor challenged him about how he reconciles his support for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with his position on balancing the federal budget.

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“Last fiscal year, our defense spending was at $653 billion,” said Chudkosky, an undecided Republican voter who came to hear Santorum with her mother, Ellen Chudkosky, also undecided. “I have heard you say multiple times you would pursue an aggressive American policy establishing democracies around the world. ... How do you propose an aggressive foreign policy with that kind of federal expenditure, but also say you want to balance the budget at home?”

Santorum nodded. “Aggressive policy doesn’t mean military action,” he said. “In fact, I would hope it would not require any military action.”

“There are five or six conflicts right now,” replied Chudkosky. “How would you sustain them?”

“Well, to my knowledge we’re in two conflicts,” Santorum began, and talked about how, though the situation in Iraq is stabilizing, an American presence will be required for some time to come. (Chudkosky said later she was referring to U.S. spending for Libya and Yemen, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.)

“Unfortunately for Iraq, you have Iran on the border, which is trying to have more and more influence over the dealings in Iraq, so having a presence there is a stabilizing influence for that area of the world, but it’s not a hot conflict right now,” said Santorum.

“But it could bankrupt us, however,” Chudkosky said.

“I would make the argument that the alternative would be a lot worse, as far as bankrupting us,” said Santorum. “Events of 9/11…"

“You don’t think our economy is a security threat?” interrupted Chudkosky.

“I think that an attack on the United States would have much more dire consequences to the economy than the continued deployment of troops in Iraq for purposes of maintaining stability as well as the continued deployment of troops in Afghanistan to get to success in that conflict,” said Santorum.

“Define success,” Chudkosky demanded.

“Right,” said Santorum. “I can.

“Where the Taliban is no longer a threat to the stability of Afghanistan. … For example. in Iraq, are there still threats … that you might call terrorist threats or insurgent threats? Sure, but they are to the point where they are manageable to the people in that country, and you get to the point where you can begin to draw down and leave. We’re not at that place in Afghanistan. To get there, we have a longer way to go, we have complicating factors, but that is the commitment.”

This was not the response Chudkosky was looking for. “And so you are saying our national defense spending has nothing to do with balancing our budget at home?”

Santorum tried a different tact: “The most important role the federal government has is what?”

“I guess that depends on your personal…" Chudkosky began.

“What would you say it is?” Santorum insisted. “What’s the only thing the federal government can do that no other level of government can do?”

Chudkosky did not play along. “I would say upholding our Constitution would be first and foremost.”

“The first responsibility of the federal government is to keep us safe from outside threats around the world,” Santorum said.

“It’s $653 billion. You think that is required?” Chudkosky asked.

“I think that what’s required is what’s necessary to keep this country safe. I can’t say that $600 billion is the right number. I can say what we have to do is spend enough money to make sure threats are ameliorated around the world.”

Afterwards, Chudkosky was unsatisfied.

“He was skirting the issue,” she said. “He talks about balanced-budget legislation a lot when he has sound bites on Fox News, but I don’t see how he plans to fund fiscally irresponsible wars and still balance the federal budget.”

She’s not sure who will get her vote, but she knows she will be casting her ballot from Afghanistan, where she expects to be deployed sometime in the next three weeks. She is a military contractor who will work with American troops, probably in Kabul, to keep them physically fit.


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