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Romney, Santorum court religious conservatives in Wisconsin

March 31, 2012|By Michael Finnegan
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to an audience at a meeting of the Wisconsin Faith & Freedom Coalition
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to an audience at… (Steven Senne / Associated…)

Reporting from Waukesha, Wis. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each sought to shore up their standing with religious conservatives on Saturday as the two leading rivals for the Republican presidential nomination battled for support in the Wisconsin primary. 

"I want to protect the sanctity of human life," Romney told hundreds of conservative Christians at a gathering of the Faith & Freedom Coalition in this suburb of Milwaukee.

Romney, who vowed to "preserve and protect a woman's right to choose" when he ran for governor of Massachusetts 10 years ago, sought to reassure the group's abortion opponents of his conversion to their cause.

He vowed to "defund Planned Parenthood" and stop federal spending on overseas family-planning programs that tolerate abortion.

Romney also promised to "restore and protect our religious freedom" by repealing an Obama administration rule requiring religious institutions, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, to include contraception in their health insurance coverage for 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' continuing focus on divisive social issues at a time when polls indicate that voters are most concerned about jobs has raised hopes among Democrats that the eventual GOP nominee will emerge from the primaries politically damaged with women and independent voters.

Santorum, Romney’s main opponent in the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, has proved more popular than the former Massachusetts governor with the party’s most conservative voters.

Speaking to the Waukesha crowd shortly after Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator 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," he told the crowd.

Unlike Romney, who did not mention his GOP primary opponents, Santorum hammered his chief rival as a flawed standard-bearer for conservatives. Romney's leading role in shaping a Massachusetts healthcare overhaul that closely resembles President Obama's makes it impossible for him to challenge the president on a visceral issue for voters in the fall, he argued.

"Unfortunately," Santorum said, "the choice that you have before you in this election here in Wisconsin on Tuesday, you have one person who can make that case, and you have one who can't. Why? Because he presented the blueprint for Obamacare and advocated it."

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 Republican primary voters. Gingrich planned to leave Wisconsin later Saturday and campaign in Maryland and North Carolina in the days ahead.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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