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Santorum pounds Romney as he opens Wisconsin campaign

March 24, 2012|By Michael Finnegan
  • Rick Santorum speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Defending the Dream conference at the Wyndam Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis
Rick Santorum speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Defending the Dream… (Jeffrey Phelps / European…)

As Republicans in Louisiana were voting Saturday in a contest that looked to be tilting his way, Rick Santorum skipped ahead to Wisconsin for an upcoming primary that stands as a more important test of his viability as a contender for the party's presidential nomination.

Wisconsin's April 3 contest offers Santorum a chance to break the pattern set by Romney and his allies in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. In each state, they buried Santorum's insurgent campaign with an onslaught of attack ads. The Romney machinery is already fully engaged in Wisconsin, airing ads from Milwaukee and Green Bay on Lake Michigan to La Crosse on the upper Mississippi River.

So Santorum, far outspent once again, opened his latest campaign for a big prize in the Midwest with a scathing verbal assault on Romney. The former Pennsylvania senator also vowed solidarity with Wisconsin's embattled Republican governor, Scott Walker, the target of a recall drive sparked by his high-drama dispute with public-employee unions.

"It's great to be here in the center of the political wars, here in Wisconsin," Santorum told hundreds of conservatives at a Milwaukee gathering of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

Santorum dismissed Romney as a "financier from Wall Street" and reminded the crowd twice that he -– unlike the well-to-do former Massachusetts governor -- "grew up in a steel town" in western Pennsylvania. Republicans, Santorum said, want a nominee "who identifies with them."

Santorum also used President Obama as a foil to establish his own cultural affinity with Wisconsin Republicans. He recalled the 2008 dustup when Obama told campaign donors in San Francisco that small-town Americans embittered by job losses cling to religion and guns out of their frustrations.

"You're darn right we cling to our guns and our Bibles, because we believe in those things," Santorum said. A roar of applause filled the room.

Santorum's main focus, though, was Romney's conservative credentials, which he portrayed as bogus. The latest evidence of Romney's lack of principles, he said, came in the recent Puerto Rico primary.

Santorum recalled getting "hammered" in the local press for saying that English would need to be Puerto Rico's official language as a condition of statehood. By Santorum's account, Romney told Puerto Ricans a couple days later that he would not condition statehood on a requirement to adopt English as the official language -– despite Romney's support for making English the nation's official language.

Santorum held up an Etch A Sketch and shook it, a gesture evoking a Romney aide's recent comments about whether conservative stands Romney espoused in the primaries would hurt him during the general election campaign. The crowd erupted in laughter.

"When people vote for president, they want to vote for someone they trust," Santorum told the audience. "Someone who's authentic, someone who won't say anything to get elected, but will stand up and do what's right for the people of this country."

Romney's ads have questioned Santorum's own loyalty to conservative causes, citing his support for organized labor in Pennsylvania, Planned Parenthood funding and congressional earmarks. But in nominating contests around the country, Santorum has fared better than Romney with the party's most conservative voters, especially evangelical Christians. With Romney far ahead in the race for nominating delegates, Wisconsin gives Santorum a chance to broaden his appeal and score a badly needed upset.

Romney took a break from campaigning on Saturday, but his campaign announced plans to have top supporters tell the news media on Monday "why Rick Santorum's long record of reckless spending is wrong for Wisconsin."

Romney's campaign criticized Santorum for using the term "Wall Street financier" to describe his opponent, who made a vast fortune as a corporate takeover financier based in Boston.

"Sadly, he has decided to join the assault on free enterprise in a way usually reserved for liberals," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.

In Milwaukee, Santorum took his distance from labor unions, saying their clout in western Pennsylvania taught him "what it's like to fight the bullies."

Pledging his support for Walker in the expected recall vote, Santorum said, "There's no tougher bullies than the public-employee unions, and I just want to say to you, Governor, I am for you, I am behind you, and I will do everything I can to help make sure that you stay governor."

Walker was not present, but the crowd burst into applause. Santorum's familiar descriptions of Romney as inconsistent on healthcare and global warming drew repeated standing ovations.

"My public policy isn't written on an Etch A Sketch," he told the crowd. "It's written on my heart! Because I'm a conservative. I don't just run as a conservative."

Original source: Santorum pounds Romney as he opens Wisconsin campaign

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