Mitt Romney, who is trying to take on the role of presumptive Republican… (Steven Senne, Associated…)
PEWAUKEE, Wis. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each sought to shore up their standing with religious conservatives Saturday as the two leading rivals for the Republican presidential nomination battled for support in the Wisconsin primary.
Their latest appeals to the party's conservative wing come as Romney is trying to take on the role of presumptive Republican nominee, which would normally require a pivot toward the center.
Romney's prolonged combat with Santorum is not only blocking him from making what he had hoped would be a smooth and quick transition to a general election campaign, but also spotlighting the shifts on social issues that led much of the party's conservative base to distrust him.
"I want to protect the sanctity of human life," Romney told hundreds of conservative Christians on Saturday at a gathering of the Faith and Freedom Coalition in this Milwaukee suburb.
Romney, who vowed to "preserve and protect a woman's right to choose" when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, tried to reassure abortion opponents that he was now devoted to their cause. He renewed his vows to "defund Planned Parenthood" and stop the flow of federal money to overseas family planning programs that tolerate abortion.
Romney also reminded the group of his promise to "restore and protect our religious freedom" by repealing the Obama administration rule requiring the health plans of religious institutions, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, to cover contraception for their employees.
"They want to dictate to the Catholic Church that the employees of the Catholic Church have to be provided by the Catholic Church with health insurance that gives them free contraceptives, and free sterilization treatment, and morning-after pills, despite the fact that this violates the conscience of the Catholic Church," Romney said.
The Republicans' focus on social issues at a time when voters are most concerned about jobs has raised hopes among Democrats that the eventual GOP nominee will emerge from the primaries with lackluster support among women and independents.
Speaking to the same crowd in Pewaukee shortly after Romney, Santorum echoed his opponent's criticism of the contraception rule.
"When the government now controls your healthcare, your access to it, tells you what you must buy, tells you to do things that may even be against your faith convictions, you no longer rule the government; the government rules you," Santorum said.
Romney has avoided public remarks about Santorum in two days of stops in Wisconsin, treating the former Pennsylvania senator as unworthy of a direct verbal assault.
Yet even with polls giving Romney an edge in Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin, the threat of a Santorum upset is real enough that Romney is spending heavily on TV attack ads. One of them assails Santorum for backing taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood even while opposing the group on principle.
Romney's campaign is also pounding Santorum in automated phone calls to thousands of voters, stoking the passions of Wisconsin Republicans over the upcoming recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. The governor's clash with public employee unions has made him a hero to fellow state Republicans.
"As you know, the fight against Big Labor, led by Gov. Walker, isn't over here in Wisconsin," a voice says in the Romney phone call, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I was shocked to find out that Rick Santorum repeatedly supported Big Labor and joined with liberal Democrats in voting against 'right-to-work' legislation during his time in Washington."
Santorum has said he declined to back such a measure in his home state, where many workers are union members, but would sign one as president.
In their remarks to the Christian conservative group, both Santorum and Romney paid tribute to Walker, sparking the loudest cheers of the day.
In a sign of his underdog status, Santorum hammered Romney by name. His main focus, as elsewhere in Wisconsin, was Romney's leading role in shaping a Massachusetts healthcare overhaul that closely resembles President Obama's. Santorum described it as a fatal weakness for the fall campaign.
"Why in the world would the Republican Party give that issue away in the general election?" he said.
Also speaking at the forum was Newt Gingrich, who is on the Wisconsin ballot but has been relegated to bottom-tier standing in polls of likely primary voters. The former House speaker planned to leave Wisconsin later Saturday and campaign instead in Maryland and North Carolina in the days ahead. (Maryland's primary is Tuesday; North Carolina's is May 8.)
A Gingrich supporter at the conference, retired orthodontist David Allesee of Racine, Wis., said he was resigned to Romney as Obama's inevitable challenger.
"I think it's a foregone conclusion, which is unfortunate," he said. Nonetheless, he added, "If you're a die-hard Republican, you're going to support whoever the nominee is."