CNN Grills Santorum's Press Secretary, Gives Free Pass to Obama Aide

While she grilled Rick Santorum's press secretary over his debate performance, CNN host Soledad O'Brien asked an Obama aide nothing even approaching a critical question on Thursday's Starting Point, and even teed her up to bash Republicans.

O'Brien mirrored her own network's treatment of President Obama in Wednesday night's debate – avoiding critical questions on the President's record and past statements. Instead, she kept the focus squarely on Republican missteps in her interviews with both Republican and Democrat staffers.

Hosting Santorum's press secretary, O'Brien questioned her on the candidate's explanation of his past voting record. "Do you think that was not a great way to portray that?" she asked of his debate answer on his past record. In contrast, O'Brien teed up President Obama's deputy campaign manager by asking her what "vulnerabilities" she saw in the GOP candidates.

In her interview with Santorum's staffer, O'Brien also played a criticism by Santorum's opponent Ron Paul and asked if it was "going to get a lot of attraction" with a national audience.

[Video below. Click here for audio.]



O'Brien added her own snarky comment about Santorum: "And, of course, your candidate Santorum lost his race, as well by I think – by 18 points. So I know that everybody sort of likes to throw that back and forth among the candidates, but that's the reality of it," she flatly told her guest.

Meanwhile, the CNN host's questions to Obama's staffer were complete softballs. First, she asked if the campaign team took notes of the Republican debates. Then she asked of any "vulnerabilities" in the GOP field.

That question was followed by a clip of Mitt Romney talking about immigration. O'Brien then teed up the staffer by asking what "opportunity" she saw in Romney's immigration plan.

A transcript of the segments, which aired on Starting Point on February 23 at 7:01 a.m. and 7:34 a.m. EST, respectively, is as follows:


O'BRIEN: Alice Stewart is the national press secretary for the Santorum 2012 presidential campaign. Nice to have you with us this morning. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it. So there were some comments from, different – if you scan the headlines. Some people said he did a great job in the debate. Others said he was, quote, "deep in the weeds" in the debate. How do you think it went?


O'BRIEN: Yeah, but people – particularly Mitt Romney was really trying to attack him on that. Because at one point they were talking about, for example, Title 10, and they also talked about, he used the words taking one for the team. I'm going to play you some of the chunks from the debate and then I'll have you talk about it on the other side. Listen.

(Video Clip)

RICK SANTORUM, Republican presidential candidate: I think I was making it clear while that  I have a personal moral objection moral to it, even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it. And I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don't support that.


SANTORUM: I've never supported it, and on an individual basis, have voted against it.

It was against the principals I believed in, but when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team.

(End Video Clip)

O'BRIEN: So let's talk about that comment, took one for the team, because I think some people are thinking about this morning and thinking that that may be an unfortunate way to put it, as if, sort of Washington is all about two teams going at it and it's the American people who are stuck on the sidelines. Do you think that was not a great way to portray that?


O'BRIEN: And, of course, your candidate Santorum lost his race, as well by I think – by 18 points. So I know that everybody sort of likes to throw that back and forth among the candidates, but that's the reality of it.


ALICE STEWART, deputy press secretary, Santorum 2012 presidential campaign: The people have taken a look at the record. They're not listening to the misrepresentations by the other candidates. They're actually looking at the records of these candidates and they see that Rick Santorum is consistent on the issues, he has not gone back and forth on key issues –

O'BRIEN: May I stop you there for a second, just because I just want to – before I – I want to go back to something that you said, and I really want to counter it with what Ron Paul said last night when you talk about the true conservative. This is Ron Paul's take on that. Listen.


(Video Clip)

JOHN KING, CNN political correspondent: You have a new television ad that labels him a fake. Why?

RON PAUL, Republican presidential candidate: Because he's a fake.


SANTORUM: I'm real. Ron. I'm real.

PAUL: Congratulations. No, I find it really fascinating that when people are running for office they're really fiscally conservative. When they're in office, they do something different and then when they explain themselves they say, oh, I want to repeal that.

(End Video Clip)

O'BRIEN: That seemed to get a lot of traction, certainly with the audience last night. Do you think that kind of attack is going to get a lot of attraction outside a bigger audience?


O'BRIEN: But some of what he says is I regret having voted for that. Or I wanted to take one for the team and that's why I did that. So some of what he says is actually saying, I did it against what I believe because there was sort of another agenda there, right? That's what he said last night in the debate.

STEWART: When he got to Washington and saw the waste, fraud, and abuse that was going on with members of Congress, he has taken on the position, he is firmly opposed to earmarks. He supports a moratorium on earmarks. And that is something that he took going to Washington and seeing the waste, fraud and abuse that went on.

O'BRIEN: After doing a lot of earmarks. He talked about that in the debate last night. He talked about specific earmarks that he supported. So I'm going to agree to disagree with you on that one this morning.


O'BRIEN: A pivotal debate in Arizona last night. Five days ahead of the elections there and Michigan, as well. Rick Santorum trying to really earn the top spot. He's been the frontrunner sort of kind of. But Mitt Romney also sort of kind the frontrunner lost a little ground. All that conversation meant the two of them were going at it and at each other last night, but President Obama did not go untouched in the debate.

[HEADLINE: Obama Takes a Beating at AZ Debate: Team Obama responds to attacks]


O'BRIEN: Brings us right to Stephanie Cutter. She is President Obama's deputy campaign manager. It's nice to have you with us. Thanks for joining us. You know, I envision that you all as you watch the debate sit there and take notes and you're like ah, weakness on the GOP on this, is that true? Is that how it works?

STEPHANIE CUTTER, Obama deputy campaign manager: If we sit around and take notes?

O'BRIEN: Yes, you all watch the debate together and you strategize – no, truly, off of like what you think are the highlights and low points of the debate. Is that how it works?


O'BRIEN: Well, I was going to ask you, if you sit around, what do you think? Did you see last night as vulnerabilities in the GOP that you were all sitting around taking notes on, as I predicted to happen?


O'BRIEN: What do you think about immigration? You point that out as a potential weakness. And let me play a little chunk of what Mitt Romney said last night and then we'll talk on the other side of it.

(Video Clip)

ROMNEY: The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona. I'll also complete the fence. I'll make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence. And I will make sure we have an e-verify system, and require employers to check the documents of workers.

(End Video Clip)

O'BRIEN: So when you heard Mitt Romney laying out sort of his immigration policy and plan if he were president, where do you see opportunity in that?


WILL CAIN, CNN contributor: I got to say, Soledad, it's just odd to me. So is the Democratic position then not opposed to earmarks? Is it not opposed to deficit spending? Not opposed to running up big budgets? I mean, if that is a right – a hard right position, what does that mean the left's position is?

O'BRIEN: I thought what she was saying was that when she says move to the right, and I hate to speak for Stephanie, certainly, but wasn't she sort of saying like you're trying to get points with the Tea Party?

-- Matt Hadro is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center