Santorum: D.C. Republicans should stay out of primaries

The ex-Pennsylvania senator cheers on conservative primaries and says Arlen Specter has betrayed the GOP

Published February 20, 2010 6:21PM (EST)

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told Salon Saturday afternoon he's all for more contested Republican primaries -- as long as conservatives win them -- and that the Washington GOP establishment should "stay the heck away" from internal battles around the country.

"Now is the time for conservatives to get out there and run in primaries, and make sure that when we do have a big election win in November, that it's meaningful, that we've elected conservatives that can actually go out and vote together to try to change the agenda," Santorum said. He spoke to CPAC early Saturday morning, then mingled for a few hours with attendees. I caught up with him after he finished talking to Fox News -- and while Ann Coulter told obnoxious and dirty jokes in the background.

Conservatives, of course, are already doing just what Santorum recommends in a lot of places. Take Florida, where CPAC darling Marco Rubio is pulling ahead of incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist in a GOP Senate primary. Or Kentucky, where Ron Paul's son Rand may upset establishment pick Trey Grayson.

Santorum -- who, when he was in the Senate, endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter (then a Republican) against conservative challenger Pat Toomey in a 2004 primary -- now says the best thing Washington Republicans can do with primary contests is not try to influence them.

"The best thing they can do is just stay the heck away," he said. "Let the people in the community and the party decide who they want to represent them... I don't think [national Republicans] are doing themselves or their candidates any favor by weighing in from Washington."

Speaking of Specter, Santorum also told me -- as he'd told the CPAC crowd earlier -- that he wishes he hadn't endorsed him six years ago. He does think Specter will beat Rep. Joe Sestak in a Democratic primary in May, but thinks Toomey -- now running as the GOP nominee -- will beat him in the fall.

Watch the interview here:

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2010 Elections Cpac Republican Party Rick Santorum War Room