• With: Kim Strassel, Jason Riley, Dan Henninger, James Freeman

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," February 25, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, FOX HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the Republican presidential candidates square off ahead of key contests in Arizona and Michigan. Who is up, who is down, and who has the momentum going forward?

    Plus, social issues and the Santorum surge. They've helped propel him to the top of the Republican field, but could they hurt the party in the fall campaign?

    And Mitt Romney shakes up the tax reform debate. Could his new plan be a game changer in the primary fight and beyond?

    Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report". I'm Paul Gigot.

    With polls tightening ahead of next week's contest in Michigan and Arizona frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, squared off in the primary's 20th presidential debate, trading jabs on everything from Romney care to earmarks.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

    RICK SANTORUM, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So the idea that somehow earmarks during the time that I was in Congress were this thing that drove up spending in Washington D.C., if you actually look at it, as I've said before, as a percentage GDP, the debt went down. What happened is there was abuse.

    MITT ROMNEY, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

    GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; Political Diary editor, Jason Riley; assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman; and Washington columnist, Kim Strassel.

    Kim, one of the big stories, Romney has been attacking Rick Santorum on his Senate voting record. He was a two-term Senator from Pennsylvania. How big of a vulnerability is that record?

    KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: It's a big one. One of the realities, Paul, a lot of the House members and Senators do not go on and win presidential nominations, and it's because they have those records. What Mr. Romney has been doing very effectively is taking those 16 years of votes that Mr. Santorum has, and using it to undermine his argument he's the real conservative in this race, instead, painting him as a Bush-era big spender. And Mr. Santorum didn't necessarily need to in the debate to disabuse voters of the idea.

    GIGOT: Jason?

    JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: It's a very smart strategy on the part of Romney. Rick Santorum was in the leadership, and the Senate, probably regrets it now, but he was in the leadership. And he does bear some responsibility for that spending. And the Romney campaign determined that part of the Santorum surge is fueled by the Tea Party, which cares about spending and earmarks, and the attacks have been effective.

    GIGOT: What about his argument on earmarks, for example, it's right for Congress to assert itself. It has the power of the purse after all. Rather than let the president just say, I'm going to dictate policy, he's saying sometimes we have to overturn the president's priorities because he's wrong.

    RILEY: He's right about that, and he's also right about just not being where the money is, which entitlement is spending.

    PAUL: OK, but then why does that --

    (CROSSTALK)

    RILEY: It's a symbolic issue.

    PAUL: Symbolic in what sense?

    DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: But the point is, you guys are making a better argument in his defense than he made in his defense.

    (LAUGHTER)

    In other words, I was struck that a professional politician like Rick Santorum wasn't better prepared for an obvious attack that was going to come on earmarks and No Child Left Behind, I took one for the team. And Rick Santorum has a reputation for winging it, and he winged it that night, and he got damaged as a result.

    GIGOT: I would say, James, another point is he sounded like a Congressional-- a member of Congress and he's running for the office of the president executive. He when you talk about the legislative process and Title IX and 1020 and Title 30 and 40, people, their eyes glazed over, and say, aha, I get it, a legislator.

    JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Exactly.

    (LAUGHTER)

    A lot of legislative language he didn't need in there. But I actually thought he did better than most people thought. In terms of, yes, he acknowledged he was a distributor of earmarks, but I think he showed that Mr. Romney was seeker and an acceptor of earmarks. Might have neutralized that.

    But I think the point is for Tea Partiers looking at this, the choice is basically Santorum or Romney. Santorum, you had in the Senate and house, a reliable vote to cut taxes and a pretty good spending record at least in the context of Republicans in the Senate. Better than most of them.

    GIGOT: Kim, what is this debate over Santorum's votes? Tell us about what the Republican primary voters think of the Bush record. Those Santorum votes taken were when President George W. Bush was president, and often on his agenda. And Romney was attacking him on No Child Left Behind, or I guess Ron Paul was attacking him on that. He's vulnerable to me, seems to me, Romney thinks he's vulnerable on the Bush agenda.

    STRASSEL: This has been a really fascinating turn of events, Paul, which is somehow it's become very toxic to have been a congressional member during the middle and end Bush years. This was when they were thrown out of Congress in 2006 and an incredible feeling among voters out there that they had lost their vision for why they'd gone to Washington, forgot about reforming, and had become all about earmarks and spending. This is why Mr. Santorum is so vulnerable on this issue.

    And it was cause of a lot of the Tea Party's angst. And the rise of the Tea Party is actually cleaning house within the GOP. So you don't want to be shed in that regard.

    FREEMAN: But you're making a judgment on Santorum versus the alternative. So, to make the judgment that Santorum is unacceptable, you have to say that if Mitt Romney had been in the Congress at that time, he would have been the hard-core Tea Party guy. And I think his record in Massachusetts doesn't lead to you that conclusion.

    GIGOT: All right, let's look at another exchange on that record in Massachusetts.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

    ROMNEY: Arlen Specter, the pro choice Senator of Pennsylvania that you supported and endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for Obamacare. If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter we would not have Obamacare.

    (CHEERING)

    ROMNEY: So don't look at me. Take a look in the mirror.

    SANTORUM: OK, governor, let's get this straight. First off, number one, you funded Romneycare through federal tax dollars through Medicaid.