Mitt Romney makes a point in the GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz. (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
When the issue of contraception came up in tonight's Republican debate, it offered the front-runners an attempt to finesse their positions on social issues to address seeming weaknesses.
For Mitt Romney, that meant taking a hard line against President Obama and his administration's decision to mandate that all employer insurance plans cover contraception -- even those that are offered by religious institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities.
Needing to make up ground among those conservatives who have of late turned to Rick Santorum, Romney accused Obama of undermining religious freedom.
"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," he said.
Rick Santorum was then asked to explain his statement to an Iowa blog about the "dangers of contraception."
The former Pennsylvania senator has been dogged this week by the increased scrutiny that followed his rise in the national polls, particularly concerning his hard-line views on social issues.
His answer showed an effort to soften the edges a bit, and fuse it with an economic message, saying the poverty rate is five times higher in single-parent homes.
"The bottom line is that we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing," he said. "How can a country survive if children are being raised in homes where it's so much harder to succeed economically?"
He added: "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it."
The actual question, submitted from a CNN viewer, asked which of the GOP hopefuls "believes in birth control." The crowd booed it lustily, and Newt Gingrich kicked off the exchange by denouncing the media for a double standard in posing the question now.
"There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes. But I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign -- not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide."
He was referring to a vote Obama cast in the state Senate in Illinois.
"If we're going to have a debate about the extremist on these issues, it is President Obama who ... voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion," he said.
There was not universal agreement -- Gingrich also attacked Romney for requiring religious hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception, a stance Romney said he did not take. And Ron Paul slapped Santorum for voting to fund a federal program that provides family-planning healthcare to the poor, including to Planned Parenthood.
Santorum replied that the funding was contained in larger appropriations bills, and that he also proposed counter-funding for abstinence programs.
Seema Mehta contributed to this report.