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Social issues play well for Santorum in middle-class Detroit suburb

February 27, 2012|By Seema Mehta
  • Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses the Livonia/Farmington Chamber of Commerce Breakfast at St. Mary's Cultural & Banquet Center in Livonia, Mich.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses the Livonia/Farmington… (Jeff Kowalsky / EPA )

Reporting from Livonia, Mich. — Rick Santorum started off railing about how President Obama’s policies were killing businesses. But he got the warmest reception in this middle-class town a few miles outside Detroit when he turned to social issues, saying that religious freedoms were under attack.

"You hear so much about separation of church and state. I'm for separation of church and state -- the state has no business telling the church what to do. ... Freedom to worship is not just what you do in the sanctuary; it's how you practice your faith outside of the sanctuary. At least in the America that I grew up in, that used to be around, that was freedom of religion," Santorum said in a speech Monday morning, his voice rising as the crowd applauded.

"All the reporters in the back will go, 'Oh, there’s Santorum talking about social issues.' No, I’m talking about freedom! This is an election about freedom, it’s about whether you buy into government can do things better for you than you can do for yourself. I don’t buy into that. I never bought into it."

Santorum was referring to a new healthcare regulation that requires employers to offer free contraceptive coverage, a rule that drew fierce protests from Catholic bishops and other religious groups who claimed it violated their rights. The Obama administration later adjusted the rule to allow some groups to have health insurers provide the benefit directly to employees, but stood by the requirement that contraceptives coverage be included in health plans.

A day before Michigan voters head to the polls in the state's GOP presidential primary, Santorum is in a tight race with rival Mitt Romney, a position the former Pennsylvania senator said he never expected to be in. A new statewide poll released early Monday showed Santorum (37%) and Romney (35%) in a dead heat here, both well ahead of challengers Newt Gingrich at 9% and Ron Paul at 8%. The automated poll had a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points, and 11% of respondents said they remain undecided.

"We're doing remarkably well for being as outspent as we are, and feel very, very good about the reaction we're getting as we travel around the state of Michigan," Santorum said after his speech. "We're getting good crowds, and obviously, the people are reacting well to our message."

Santorum hit Romney as too similar to Obama, citing the healthcare plan the former Massachusetts governor enacted in his state, as well as his positions on global warming and his support for the Wall Street bailout.

"Why would we give those issues away in the general election," Santorum said. "Why would we put someone up there who is uniquely unqualified to make that case?"

He also defended his opposition to government bailouts of private-sector firms, noting that he did not pick and choose which industries to support, but consistently opposed all such aid, including the auto industry bailouts, on principle.

"I know it’s not a popular topic in Detroit, but at least I'm consistent," he said, recalling growing up in western Pennsylvania and seeing the aftermath of the decline of the steel industry. "And you know what, it was a painful, a lot of people lost their jobs."

"Capital is painful; we all know that markets are painful sometimes. ... But [people] suffer more if we try to rig the game," he said. "I've been consistent on that, I can go after President Obama on that like no one else in this race can. We need sharp contrasts, we need a vision that's consistent, that believes in free people, free markets."

A voter asked Santorum about his plans to strengthen Social Security. He responded by saying the current system, under which people can retire at age 62 and live for another two decades, is unsustainable. That's a truth, he said, that politicians are unwilling to speak because it will result in campaign attack ads saying that people like him want to "throw Grandma off the cliff."

"Sixty-two-year-old grandmas aren't in a wheelchair, and they’ll punch back if you try to push them off the cliff," he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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