Hoping to chip away at Democratic Challenger Bob Casey's consistent lead in the polls, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has repeatedly touted his ardent opposition to the Iranian regime, arguing that he — and not his opponent — has a deep and longstanding commitment to confronting what he labels "Islamic-Fascism."
His campaign Web site includes a "Jewish Community Accomplishments" section citing his introduction of the Iranian Nuclear Trade Prohibition Act, as well as the Iran Freedom and Support Act. The latter seeks to bolster pro-democracy groups and promote regime change in Tehran.
However, Democrats are far from ready to concede the issue.
At a Center City press conference held last week organized by the National Jewish Democratic Council's political-action committee, several elected officials and Democratic activists charged that Santorum had voted several times against closing a loophole in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act that makes it possible for subsidiaries of American-owned companies to do business with Iran.
Current law prohibits American-owned companies from making deals with the Iranian government or an Iranian-owned company.
"The junior senator from Pennsylvania is presenting an image to the Jewish community that simply doesn't match the facts," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who appeared at the press conference alongside U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-13) and Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Lautenberg introduced a measure several times in 2004 and 2005 that he argued would have closed such a loophole, and thus prevented millions of dollars from flowing to Iran for the pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as financing Hezbollah and Hamas.
Said Lautenberg: "When faced with tough choices on tightening Iranian sanctions, Rick Santorum has not been there — he's backed down."
The New Jersey senator also charged that Santorum had voted against the amendment out of loyalty to Vice President Dick Cheney. According to Lautenberg, Halliburton — the energy technology company once run by Cheney — did $39 million in business with Iran in 2003, as well as operates an office in the nation's capitol through a subsidiary based in the Cayman Islands.
It's unclear how much business is conducted annually between U.S.-owned subsidiaries and Iran.
A response from the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Republican Coalition argued that Santorum did propose his own amendment to close the loophole — and that Lautenberg seemed more concerned with punishing Halliburton than fighting terror.
"Lautenberg insisted that the amendment should focus on companies which have existing investments in Iran — not on companies which might do business with Iran in the future," RJC co-chairs Steven L. Friedman and Myles H. Tanenbaum wrote in a letter.
And, of course, the respective campaigns weighed in.
"Iran is a very serious national security threat, and for Bob Casey to trot out Sen. Frank Lautenberg — who actually opposed Sen. Santorum's Iran Freedom and Support Act — demonstrates that Casey simply does not understand the seriousness of this threat," wrote Virginia Davis, Santorum's spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
Yet according to David Goldenberg, a spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council, Casey's campaign wasn't even told about the press conference until after it took place. He added that the NJDC is prohibited by law to co-sponsor an event with the Casey campaign — or any other, for that matter.
When asked about the Lautenberg press conference, Casey spokesman Larry Smar said, "It does raise a good point."
In a follow-up e-mail, he added that "Bob supports sanctions, and an expansion of sanctions on companies with subsidiaries that do business with Iran."