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Cynthia Tucker examines Rick Santorum’s controversial comments regarding Medicaid in her column, “Santorum’s Ugly Turn:”

Rick Santorum — who gained the media spotlight after coming in a close second to Mitt Romney in Iowa — has long been a hard-right social conservative: opposed to reproductive rights, adamantly homophobic, hostile to contraceptive use.

But he hasn’t previously been known as a race-baiter. The scion of a working-class Pennsylvania family, he spent his career in Congress pushing the right-wing dream list, including attempts to restrict the teaching of evolution.

While he joined most Republicans and some Democrats to pass permanent cutbacks to welfare programs in 1996, he didn’t demonize the poor. He didn’t engage in hoary stereotypes that equate welfare with black Americans.

So it’s curious to note a controversy that has dogged him since the day before the Iowa caucuses. Speaking at a campaign stop in Sioux City, he denounced state efforts to sign up more beneficiaries for Medicaid, which provides health insurance for the poor. News organizations quoted him this way: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”

After he was roundly denounced by progressive activists, civil rights groups and liberal policymakers, Santorum claimed he was misunderstood. “I started to say a word and sort of mumbled it. … But I don’t … recall saying black,” he told CNN.