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Gingrich, Santorum battle for conservatives in the Deep South

March 11, 2012|By Michael Finnegan
(AP Photo/ John David Mercer,…)

Reporting from Mobile, Ala. — With the Mississippi and Alabama primaries now two days away, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich tussled on Sunday over which Republican presidential hopeful would adhere most faithfully to conservative orthodoxy on fiscal restraint, healthcare and oil drilling.

Both also took swipes at GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney, whose heavy advertising has made the pivotal Deep South contests fiercely competitive despite both states’ cultural dissonance with the former Massachusetts governor.

Santorum, whose calling card with the South’s evangelical Christians has been social issues, attacked Romney’s record on abortion and contraception.

Also added to the mix on Sunday: a provocative new Gingrich television ad. Gingrich, whose attacks on President Obama have sparked accusations that he was exploiting bias against African Americans, has begun airing an ad in Alabama that some might perceive as playing into ethnic stereotypes, particularly in a region where the Christian president is seen by some as a Muslim.

Gas prices, a narrator in the ad says, “didn’t go down when Obama bowed to Saudi oil princes.” The ad shows Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah, dressed in Arab headdress and robe. (President George W. Bush, who walked hand-in-hand with the king and kissed him, does not appear in the spot.)

The ad goes on to show an image of a white man with his hands up, as if being mugged at gunpoint, with an unseen assailant poking a gas pump in his back. “The Gingrich $2.50 plan stops the great gas holdup and puts money back in your pocket,” the narrator says of the candidate’s pledge to cut gas prices to $2.50 a gallon.

In South Carolina’s primary in January, Gingrich’s centerpiece television ad called Obama a “food-stamp” president. In public remarks, Gingrich sometimes follows the food-stamp line – which he has also used in Alabama and Mississippi – with comments about poverty and joblessness among blacks.

Discussing welfare two weeks ago in an address to the Georgia legislature, Gingrich promoted his call for enhancing states’ rights, an appeal fraught with racial symbolism in a region where for decades that was the rationale put forth to justify segregation and slavery.

On Fox News, Gingrich touted his energy plan on Sunday, saying more domestic oil drilling – off the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, for instance – would cut gasoline prices. “The direction I would take the country is towards developing our energy resources to be independent of the Middle East so that no American president would bow to a Saudi king,” he said.

On a day when an American serviceman inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment by reportedly killing 16 people in a house-to-house shooting rampage outside Kandahar, Gingrich also stopped just short of saying the United States should pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

“There is something profoundly wrong with the way we’re approaching the whole region, and I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better,” he said, adding that the military’s mission “may frankly not be doable.”

On domestic matters, Gingrich slammed Santorum for his fiscal record as a former Pennsylvania senator. He told CBS that the U.S. budget was balanced for four years on his watch as House speaker in the 1990s, but that Santorum, as part of the Senate leadership, “ran up” a $1.7 trillion deficit and voted five times to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.

“On economic issues, I am much, much more conservative than Sen. Santorum,” Gingrich said on “Face the Nation.”

As for his uphill battle to revive his once high-flying candidacy, Gingrich said he was “playing catch-up a little bit to Romney because of the scale of his money,” but still “committed to going all the way to Tampa,” where the Republican National Convention will take place this summer.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Santorum said Gingrich can stay in the race as long as he wants, but Republicans would have a greater shot at nominating a conservative if the former speaker bows out. He also minimized the significance of various interpretations of the convoluted process for counting Republican nominating delegates, saying it’s untrue that Romney holds an insurmountable lead.

“This race has a tremendous amount of dynamics,” he said. The delegate count will “change dramatically” as those who are “unbound” swing his way, Santorum said. Romney, he argued, has outspent him 10-to-1 and rallied the GOP establishment, yet “can’t close the deal” with the Republican rank-and-file.

Santorum also accused Romney of being untruthful about his record in Massachusetts of supporting steps to fight global warming and a government mandate requiring people to buy health insurance.

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