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Santorum, Gingrich ratchet up conservative rhetoric in the South

Crisscrossing Alabama and Mississippi ahead of Tuesday's primaries, the Republicans play up appeals to the religious right, a tactic that could backfire in November.

March 09, 2012|By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Gambling on the South, Newt Gingrich -- appearing in Georgia with his wife, Callista -- took his rhetoric far to the right in hopes of appealing to evangelical voters in Alabama and Mississippi.
Gambling on the South, Newt Gingrich -- appearing in Georgia with his wife,… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )

Reporting from Mobile, Ala. — Newt Gingrich sees victory in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday as a chance — perhaps his last — to show he remains a viable contender for president.

For Rick Santorum, wins in the Deep South hold the potential to drive the former House speaker out of the race, strengthening him for the battle to topple GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.

As for Romney, Alabama and Mississippi are an opportunity to diminish, if not crush, the insurgent candidacy of Santorum with an aggressive ad campaign.

The three colliding goals are in play as Tuesday's vote nears. But if the stakes are high in the two states, so is the peril. The Republican presidential candidates have been crisscrossing the South for days, calibrating their messages for an audience far more conservative than the swing voters who will decide in November whether to replace President Obama with one of them.

At times, Alabama and Mississippi have proved irresistible settings for the candidates to play up appeals to the religious right, a tactic that could backfire for the Republican nominee in the fall.

Gingrich has taken the biggest gamble, both in terms of strategy and rhetoric. He abandoned a six-stop swing across Kansas, where caucuses are being held Saturday, to focus this week solely on the South. Even though he has captured Georgia and South Carolina, his disappointing third-place finishes in Tennessee and Oklahoma this week cast doubt on his prospects.

In Mississippi, he went hard to the right. At a rally on Thursday in Jackson, he ripped into Obama's patriotism and religious bearings in an effort to draw support from the evangelical Christians who dominate Southern primaries.

He accused Obama of "declaring war on the Catholic Church and every right-to-life institution" with a rule requiring religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals, to include contraception in their employees' health plans. That line of attack — which Romney and Santorum have also used — has left many Republicans fretting that the party is alienating women, whose support they will need in the fall.

Gingrich told the crowd that "the right to bear arms came from God," through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He described the 2010 laws that overhauled healthcare and imposed rules on banks and investment firms as a "repudiation of the Declaration of Independence."

In Montgomery, Ala., the day before, Gingrich used still stronger rhetoric to cast Obama as an un-American "food-stamp president." In a state where many question whether the Christian president is a Muslim, Gingrich used a cultural and religious framework to promote his vow to cut gas prices by expanding domestic energy supplies.

"If you want $9-a-gallon gasoline and bowing to Saudi kings, vote for Obama," he said. The president, he added, apologizes "to radical Islamist fanatics while attacking the Catholic Church," so "if you want somebody who believes in religious freedom in America and is willing to say to the Saudis they ought to have religious freedom in Saudi Arabia too, vote for Newt Gingrich."

Santorum, too, has made religion a prime focus. At a banquet Thursday here in the Gulf Coast port city of Mobile, he renewed his criticism of John F. Kennedy for saying during his 1960 presidential campaign that he believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

"That's not America," Santorum said. "That's France. That's a naked public square where people of faith are out of bounds."

Santorum backed away from an earlier statement that Kennedy's speech made him want to "throw up," but pledged to keep speaking out for religion's place in public life.

"Please pray for me that I do so more articulately in the future," he said.

Santorum also took on Gingrich obliquely, reminding the crowd that he and his own wife, Karen, have been married 21 years and home-schooled their seven children. On Friday, he was less subtle in drawing an implicit contrast with Gingrich's history of marital infidelity, castigating him for sitting on a sofa next to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in a TV ad calling for steps to address climate change.

"I didn't sit on the couch with anybody," Santorum said. "I would only sit on the couch with my wife. Period. No other women — particularly not Nancy Pelosi."

Several signs point to Santorum strength, or at least the appearance of strength, in his tussle with Gingrich — first and foremost, the political map. As Gingrich retreated south, Santorum left Alabama on Friday for a dash across Kansas and Missouri before returning to Mississippi on Sunday. Missouri holds Republican caucuses March 17.

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