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Rick Santorum aims to narrow race against Mitt Romney

March 09, 2012|By John Hoeffel

Reporting from Topeka, Kan. — Rick Santorum, hoping to notch a win in the Kansas caucuses on Saturday, flew into the state Friday for rallies in the capital and Wichita, the largest city, pitching himself to the state's voters as the true conservative in contrast to what he said was Mitt Romney's opportunistic conversion.

"We have an opportunity to potentially narrow this race down so we can go one-on-one with Gov. Romney, and once that happens, the conservative will be nominated," Santorum told about 250 people in the ornate waiting room of a 1927 Union Pacific railroad station.

He noted that Romney, citing his lead in the delegate count, boasted it would take an act of God for Santorum to win the nomination. Santorum, a devout Catholic whose religious views have shifted the campaign toward social issues, said: "I believe in acts of God."

Santorum devoted much of his speech to comparing his view of the limited role government should play with President Obama's view, illustrated by his health insurance reform. "We don't need someone to provide for us; we don't need someone to make decisions for us," he said. "Obama believes you are incapable of making rational decisions."

But Santorum segued from his critique of Obama's liberalism to slice up Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts, noting his support for requiring people to buy health insurance.

The former senator from Pennsylvania criticized Romney for saying that he has never supported a federal individual mandate, arguing that records show otherwise. "We already have one president who doesn't tell the truth to the American people. We don't need another," he said.

Santorum, wearing a suit but no tie and limned in sunlight streaming into the 34-foot-high hall, said the election was about which candidate voters can trust. "Gov. Romney reinvents himself for whatever the political occasion calls for," he said. 

Two long Union Pacific freight trains rumbled by during Santorum's speech, shaking the building and making it difficult to hear. The bright yellow engines were painted with huge waving American flags and the Union Pacific shield over the slogan: "Building America."

Kansas is friendly territory for Santorum, who has a consistent record on issues that matter to conservative voters, such as his steadfast opposition to abortion. Neither Romney nor former House  Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigned in the state this week, essentially ceding it.

In Topeka, in contrast to recent stops in Alabama and Mississippi, which vote Tuesday, Santorum stressed his economic message, saying little about his religious or social views. But he drew some of the biggest applause when he cited the Declaration of Independence as saying human rights come from the Creator, pausing to let his audience to shout the word "Creator."

"Deliver us a big win here in the state of Kansas," Santorum urged. "If we nominate a conservative, then we will win this election and you will have done your duty for this country."

Santorum, who has drawn protests from gay activists, attracted two dozen protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, known for the virulently anti-homosexual stance of its pastor, Fred Phelps. The Topeka-based church, largely made up of Phelps' family, has drawn harsh condemnation for its pickets and is monitored by civil rights organizations as a hate group.

Benaiah Phelps, the preacher's 18-year-old grandson, could not say why they targeted Santorum's event, but he explained their presence by saying: "We just have to preach the word." He was holding two signs: "God Hates The World" and "God Sent the IEDs."

Don Elersic, who is originally from Pennsylvania, showed up in a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. The 62-year-old had heard on the news that only Romney could win because he has the money. That made him mad. "That's not the way politics is supposed to go," he said.

Parrish Stevens, a 43-year-old insurance agent, said he came to hear Santorum speak to decide whether to vote for him and decided he would. "I really wasn't sure about Santorum because you don't hear much about him," he said. He said he had also considered voting for Gingrich. "I like Newt's style," he said. "I just think he's got too much baggage."

Stevens, who brought his 11-year-old son along so he could see a man who might become president, said he was concerned about the stagnant economy and rising gas prices. He was impressed with Santorum's proposals to reduce taxes and do away with "Obamacare," as critics call Obama's healthcare law. He said employers aren't hiring new workers because they are worried about its effects.

Heeding Santorum's plea for help, Stevens left with some yard signs.

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