Romney responds to his critics: 'I have lived conservatism'

This is a rush transcript from "Hannity," February 16, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

SEAN HANNITY, HOST: And tonight on "Hannity," you'll hear directly from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Now, in recent days the former Massachusetts governor has found himself trailing Rick Santorum in a number of polls. And in an effort to ensure that trend continues, the former Pennsylvania senator released the following ad targeting Governor Romney's record. Take a look at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back. On full throttle. This time Romney's firing his mud at Rick Santorum. Romney and his Super PAC have spent staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans. Why? Because Romney is trying to hide from his big government Romneycare and his support for job-killing cap-and-trade. And in the end, Mitt Romney's ugly attacks are going to backfire.


HANNITY: And Governor Romney's conservative credentials have also been questioned recently by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Here is what she is said on Sunday.


SARAH PALIN, R-FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: I am not convinced and I don't think that the majority of GOP and independent voters are convinced. And that is why you don't see Romney get over that hump. He is still in the 30 percentile mark when it comes to approval and primary wins and caucus wins. He still hasn't risen above that yet, because we are not convinced.


HANNITY: And joining me to respond and set the record straight himself is the man, the former governor of the great state of Massachusetts and presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Governor, thanks for being back.

I know you gave a speech in Ohio tonight. And in the speech, it seemed like you were addressing Governor Palin's comments, maybe some comments by your opponents when you said, "My conservatism is to the core." And I thought it was almost the strongest that I have ever heard you speak out, saying, "I am a passionate conservative. It is who I am." Was this in response to some of the criticism that has come your way?

MITT ROMNEY, R-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, actually, it was the same address that I gave to the folks at CPAC about a week ago, pointing out that I have lived conservatism. Some people study it and come to know conservatism by their readings. I have actually lived conservatism in my life, in my home, in my family, in my faith and also in business. You know, if you are not a fiscal conservative in business, you know, you will go out of business. And of course, I was able to demonstrate my conservatism as the governor of my state. We balanced the budget every year for four years. We have put in place a rainy day fund. Cut taxes 19 times. And some big social issues came to the fore in my state. Like same-sex marriage and embryo farming. These are battles I led the charge for conservative values.

So, my record is pretty solid and strong and that's why I think I won with a record amount of support in New Hampshire, among conservatives, in Florida, among conservatives and Nevada. And I think I have got the most delegates at this point. So, we'll keep on battling. And I think I'll get some good support.

HANNITY: Look, there has been so much fluctuation and there has been so much volatility as you know, Governor, in this race. And what do you think, as you analyze it, what do you think the reason is? Is it just, you know, uncertainty in terms of who the best candidate is to take on the president? What do you attribute that to?

ROMNEY: Well, you know, there have been a lot of people that have come into the race. I'm very pleased and I have been able to stay in the race as one of the leaders throughout the process. Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty were very strong early on. Herman Cain and Rick Perry were in the race. Newt Gingrich has been very high in the polls in the past. And right now we have a new kid on the block who is going to go under the same scrutiny that everybody else goes under in this process. I'm pleased that I have been able to come out with the most delegates. No one is going to hand the nomination to someone on a silver platter. They'll have to fight hard to win the nomination. It's a process that I respect. And you know it's going to take a while to get this job done. John McCain lost 19 states in his road to become the nominee. I hope I can win. And I hope I get the delegates I need.

HANNITY: All right. Let me go to the issue -- we just played some of Rick Santorum's ad. And in fairness, I want to play the ad that you are now running -- not you, but the PAC that is supporting you, has been running against Senator Santorum. And give you a chance to weigh in on it. Let's roll this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney helped create thousands of jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rick Santorum is called the ultimate Washington insider.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Romney rescued the Olympics.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum was in Washington, voting to raise the debt limit five times.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Romney vetoed 800 times and turned a deficit into a surplus without raising taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum was voting for billions in waste. Including the bridge to nowhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Romney and Santorum, big differences.


HANNITY: I can tell you that I interviewed Senator Santorum on radio today. He wasn't exactly happy with that ad.

ROMNEY: Well, I am not exactly happy with his ad, by the way. He was the first person in the campaign to run negative ads, attacking me. He did that through his campaign in South Carolina. His PAC also ran negative ads against me. And then he's got the most negative ad I have seen so far, the one attacking me for attacking him.

Look, it's not something I'm going to whine about. I know there are some candidates that want to whine about the fact that in campaigns, you go back and forth. To talk about the distinctions between one another. But let's talk about a process that gets us to a nominee. Recognize that this is preparing us for what is going to come from the Obama machine, which will be extraordinary. He will spend $1 billion attacking the Republican nominee. We have to get ourselves ready for that kind of attack.

HANNITY: There has been a lot of speculation today, because both you and as I understand it, Senator Santorum, have said that there was a scheduled debate next week that you will not be participating in. What was the reason, the rationale for not participating?

ROMNEY: Well, we had now, what, 19 debates and so we've had plenty of opportunity for people to get to know us and to see us. And in the days leading up to the Super Tuesday, I've got a calendar that's taking me to a lot of the primary states. I think I'm in Washington State that night. And so, we all can't just drop our calendar because someone wants to hold a debate. I think CNN has had six or seven debates so far. So, you know, we're not campaigning. That is part of the political process. And we have done a lot of debates. We've got another one scheduled. But we're not going to say yes to all of the requests that come along.

HANNITY: Do you think that before Super Tuesday there has been a long lag between debates. For example, I would argue that the debates really had a big impact on the South Carolina race in terms of favoring and helping Newt Gingrich. Your Florida debates I think had a big impact on you taking Florida as you did and then giving you momentum into Nevada. Do you think in the sense not doing a debate before Super Tuesday on the latest issues in the campaign, for example, the contraceptive mandate and the accommodation and then a lot of these other issues, new ads back and forth -- I get the impression that in the case of Newt Gingrich, he especially would like an opportunity to debate you again. Will that happen?

ROMNEY: You know what? We have a debate I think scheduled, or proposed for the 22nd of this month. So, we are going to be doing more debates. I don't know how many more. But I do believe that 19 debates is a record in our party by a wide margin. And you know, in the presidential debates, there are only three. And those are determined by the presidential commission when they are held and how they are held. So, yes, I know that there are some folks who have not put together a campaign that they're going to wanted debate every chance they possibly can. But you know, we want to get out and see voters and do some of the handshaking and getting to see people. And that is part of the process as well.

HANNITY: You know, in the anticipation of your appearance tonight, we did get a note from the Santorum campaign and their answer was, I don't know what you said on the campaign trail, but I think they were upset about you characterizing his position on the accommodation and the contraception mandate. And he said, "Rick has been clear, he supports a woman's right to contraception. He agrees with Mitt Romney 100 percent on the issue. They do differ on one important reproductive health issue. Rick opposes all forms of abortion, including the morning after pill and Romneycare legislation allows for $50 abortion and taxpayer subsidiaries." And obviously, there is a hotly contested, you know, issue here. And I wanted to give you a chance to give your opinion on the issue and Senator Santorum's comments.

ROMNEY: Well, first of all, I said nothing about his statements on contraception. And secondly, with regards to our health care plan in my state, it was the court that established the requirements of abortion. Not the legislation. There is no mention in the legislation whatsoever of abortion. But I understand that she senator is going to want to do whatever he can to try and promote his position. That is his right. I'll make sure that people understand my record and I'll set the record straight.

HANNITY: Last question, I want to go to back to this issue of conservatism for just a minute. Because I do think it has been an issue, as you know, it has been written about widely. Many times. It's been sort of broken up into Romney/non-Romney. And different people have taken you on. And you've always seem to be able to come back throughout this process, Governor. What do you want to say to maybe that conservative that still has those questions? You do know they exist. You did make your case about your time as governor. But what would you say to them at this point in the campaign to convince them that you, if elected, would govern on conservative principles on all the important issues that the country faces?

ROMNEY: Well, let me take two attacks or two approaches to that question. One is to describe my own record. I was a conservative governor, I described some of the ways I have done that, and how I fought for conservative social values, conservative economic values. Balance the budget every year. Actually, during my term in office, the budget in Massachusetts grew more slowly than the rate of inflation.

Let me contrast that with the other guy who's sort of up in the polls right now, Rick Perry -- I mean, Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum voted five times to raise the debt ceiling without compensating cuts in federal costs. He also voted and continues to defend earmarks. And I'm in favor of stopping earmarks. Banning earmarks. During Rick Santorum's term in office, the government in Washington grew by 80 percent. Eighty percent.

Look, Washington sent Republicans, or had Republican goes there, that were going to try to rein in spending. And they're sort of acting like Democrats, spending too much money with big earmarks, billions of dollars in earmarks that Rick Santorum voted for.

Look, when it comes to economic conservatism, I've got the record that he does not have. And I believe that when it comes to that economic conservatism, people are going to have a hard time finding someone more conservative than myself.

HANNITY: All right. Governor, it's always great to have you. Thanks for joining us tonight. I appreciate as always, your time.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Sean. Good be with you.

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