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Santorum telegraphs punches at Romney before GOP debate

January 07, 2012|By Paul West
  • Rick Santorum addresses a crowd in Hollis, N.H.
Rick Santorum addresses a crowd in Hollis, N.H. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Amherst, N.H. — If Rick Santorum's blistering remarks about Mitt Romney on Saturday are any indication, this evening's televised debate will be the most acrimonious of the Republican presidential campaign.

Following his success in the Iowa caucuses, Santorum is trying to solidify his status as the conservative alternative to Romney in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries over the next two weeks.

Up to now, the contenders on the right, in their attempts to become the anti-Romney candidate, have spent more time attacking one another than tangling with the front-runner -- to Romney's great benefit.

That will probably change tonight.

Santorum, for one, is primed to go after him. And he didn't wait for the TV lights to go on (ABC, 6 p.m. PST) Saturday during a 40-minute appearance at the Homestead Grocery and Deli near Amherst.

The expected Romney landslide in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, he warned, would produce "a muddled mess" for the Republican Party. And if Romney becomes the nominee, he added, "we will not have the kind of clarity that is necessary to defeat an incumbent. To defeat an incumbent, you better offer a clear, different vision. Not something less or something slightly different than what the incumbent has put in place."

Speaking to a crowd of about 100 voters, dozens of media representatives and a handful of Occupy protesters, Santorum cast Romney as a big-government Republican who imposed mandates on the people of his state and raised fees that were costly to New Hampshire residents who work in Massachusetts.

The former Pennsylvania senator said the GOP needed to pick someone, like himself, who could pose a strong contrast with President Obama.

Santorum accused Romney, in effect, of standing for nothing more than winning and promising merely to manage the mess in Washington, rather than changing it fundamentally, as the ex-senator pledges to do.

In what could go down as the closest thing to a literal stump speech in the campaign, Santorum stood atop a picnic table bench, rather than a tree stump, on a wooded slope overlooking a half-frozen pond. The 53-year-old candidate, clad in sweater vest and chino pants on an unusually mild day, spoke without a sound system to amplify his remarks.

With undisguised disdain, he summed up his view of Romney's case for why he should be the nominee: "I should win this election because I can win."

"Win what? Win what?" asked Santorum, his voice rising.

"The leader in this race fashions himself as, 'I'm a CEO. I'm a good manager.' Washington, D.C., and this government doesn't need a good manager." Americans "need someone with a bold vision to transform Washington, to limit government, not to manage the problems that are in that city," he said to applause.

Santorum, whose skeletal New Hampshire staff had to rely on a Romney supporter to help with the Pennsylvanian's debate-day swing around the state, pointed to a recent article in the New Hampshire Union Leader about the cost to New Hampshire commuters of Romney's policies as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007.

 "Gov. Romney has raised fees," Santorum said. "If you were a Granite Stater and working down in Massachusetts, the cost under Romney went up about $500 a year, based on the tax increase that he imposed on the people here in New Hampshire.

 "Fees went up. Taxes went up. Spending went up. We saw Romneycare be instituted, which was the template for Obamacare. That's the reality of the candidate that we want to put up as a contrast" to President Obama, he said.

The key to a Republican victory in 2012, according to Santorum, is to "put someone up there as a clear contrast with President Obama, to make him the issue, not the record of our candidate"—referring to Romney again. The focus, he added, should be on the president's "record of raising taxes. His record of government mandates."

When a voter asked for his position on healthcare, Santorum turned the answer into an assault on Romney, who, he said, "has a very bad record as a governor on healthcare. Someone who supported a top-down, government-run healthcare system."

Referring to the high costs of insurance premiums and medical care in Massachusetts, Santorum said that Romney had "solved the wrong problem"--focusing on universal access rather than cost control.

Like Obama, he said, Romney drafted his healthcare policies from the "attitude of someone who believes that you solve this problem with the government doing it. " Santorum said healthcare would be less costly and more efficient if private competition were encouraged--something, he said, that "common-sense Americans understand."

Even a brief interruption from a Southwest jet, which drowned out his words on its descent to the Manchester airport, became an opportunity to jab the man who, evidently, is always on Santorum's mind.

"It's probably Romney flying in," he said, to predictable laughter. "A private plane, I suspect." Actually, Romney came back Friday, after a quick trip to South Carolina. Santorum plans to fly there Sunday, after a morning debate on NBC, from Concord, N.H., just 10 hours after tonight's encounter ends.

During the gathering in Amherst, Santorum got what amounted to pre-debate coaching from a woman in the crowd. She challenged Santorum to make a case for his electability over Romney, one that she could present to her 19-year-old son. "A quick answer," she urged the long-winded ex-senator.

paul.west@latimes.com

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