Mitt Romney holds a campaign rally at RV America in Loveland, Colo. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Johnstown, Colo. — Mitt Romney wrapped up his campaign for Tuesday's Republican presidential contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado with an effort to match his rivals' appeal among religious conservatives who have long resisted his overtures.
At a morning rally in this town on the northern Colorado front range, the former Massachusetts governor echoed rival Rick Santorum's fierce attack Monday on an Obama administration rule that will force many religious employers to include birth control in the health plans of their workers.
Romney castigated the administration for forcing "Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals and so forth" to provide "free contraceptives and free morning-after pills, abortive pills for all of their employees in violation of the religious conscience of those organizations.
"This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States," he said to a burst of applause from a few hundred supporters gathered on a snowy morning in a chilly RV America warehouse.
The White House says the rule requires coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives, which includes Plan B. RU486, which many consider an abortifacient, is not required under the law.
It was a rare openly religious appeal from Romney, a Mormon whose faith has drawn wariness among some of the evangelical Christians who dominate many of his party's primaries and caucuses.
Romney made similar remarks on Monday in Centennial, Colo., just hours after Santorum angrily told TV news crews outside Denver that it was "just a bunch of bull" for a White House spokesman to say the administration was trying to address concerns of the Catholic Church and other religious groups over the new healthcare rules.
The Health and Human Services Department rules are supposed to guarantee that women receive free "preventive" healthcare, such as contraception. They require employers to include those services in their health coverage by August.
Religious groups can get an exemption if the services violate their beliefs, but not if they employ large numbers of people who do not share those beliefs. Thus, a Catholic hospital employing many non-Catholic workers must cover contraception in its health plan.
Another Romney rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has made reported persecution of Christians a centerpiece of his own appeals to religious conservatives.
Romney, Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, are competing Tuesday in Republican presidential caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri. No delegates are at stake, but Santorum, whose political base is religious conservatives, is hoping to win at least some fresh bragging rights after a long stretch of losses.
At his rally here in Johnstown, Romney also took a familiar Gingrich line of attack on President Obama, saying the Democratic incumbent has driven more and more Americans into dependence on public handouts. Gingrich has labeled Obama "the food stamp president."
Picking up on that theme, if not the controversial phrase, Romney said Obama and his friends "think our greatness comes from government."
"They want government to make us an entitlement society, where people think they're entitled to whatever they want, so that government takes from some and gives it to others," Romney said. "We will stay an opportunity nation if I'm president. We'll end this concept of an entitlement nation."