Posted at 08:24 PM ET, 03/10/2012

Santorum gambles on shifting away from economy amid signs of recovery

Maybe it’s not the economy after all, stupid.


Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) addresses supporters in Springfield, Mo., Saturday night. (Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)
One day after a new jobs report suggested that the country’s sluggish recovery may at last be getting off the ground, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on Saturday gave his strongest indication yet that he is pivoting away from economic issues and seeking to make inroads among voters on foreign policy and the issue of health care.

The move represents something of a gamble for Santorum, as polls show that jobs and the economy remain the top issues on voters’ minds.

And, when it comes to health care in particular, the shift suggests a ramped-up strategy by Santorum of hitting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, on an issue that many consider his prime weakness in the nomination race as well as in the general election.

“You hear now the media starting to say, oh well, looks like the economy is getting better,” Santorum told supporters Saturday night in Springfield, Mo., shortly after the Associated Press declared him the winner of the Kansas caucuses. “You know, the economy may be getting better and Republicans may lose their edge on that issue. Well, if that was the only issue in this race, that may or may not be the case, we don’t know.”

He added that “the point is that’s the point — we don’t know what the big issue of the day is going to be when it comes to national security. It may be the dominant issue, national security with Iran on the precipice of getting a nuclear weapon, Israel feeling increasingly isolated by this administration.”

Later in his address, Santorum was more direct in shifting his focus away from economic issues.

“The issue may not be jobs and the economy,” he told the crowd. “It may be something more fundamentally important: Having someone who stood up for something called freedom.”

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, defended Romney’s emphasis on the economy.

“Senator Santorum is buying President Obama’s spin,” Saul said. “Mitt Romney is a conservative businessman who has worked in the real world economy and understands that 8 percent unemployment may be the best President Obama can do but it’s not the best America can do.”

In his stump speech, Santorum has begun ramping up his health-care attacks on Romney in recent days. And he signaled his foreign-policy shift earlier this week in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.

But that was a forum that was largely foreign-affairs-related in nature. By suggesting during a caucus-night speech to supporters that the economy may not be the top issue on which Republicans will run, Santorum appeared to be opening up a new front in the 2012 race.

“I may not have been a Wall Street private-equity-fund manager, but I served eight years on the Armed Services Committee,” Santorum said Saturday. “I led the charge identifying Iran’s nuclear program nine years ago, authored bills to put sanctions to stop it. We’re not electing a CEO. We’re electing a commander-in-chief, and there’s one person who has experience doing that.”

On health care, Santorum hammered both Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), against whom Santorum is competing to appeal to the GOP’s conservative base.

“Governor Romney’s the worst on this issue in this race, but obviously, Speaker Gingrich is not a whole lot better,” he said, arguing that “for 20 years,” the former House speaker had pushed for a federal health-care mandate.

He introduced a new refrain in criticizing Romney, blasting the former Massachusetts governor for recent statements regarding his position on health-care law and declaring, “That is not the truth.”

Santorum also argued that health care is the issue that carried Republicans to victory in the 2010 midterms — and one that they should not abandon.

“Why would the Republican Party — on the issue that won us the 2010 election, on the issue that’s at the heart of government robbing you of your freedom . . . nominate either of them, who are uniquely unqualified to make the case to the American public?” Santorum said of Romney and Gingrich.

“They both were for top-down, government-run health care. . . . We cannot, and with your help, we will not give that issue away,” he added.

By  |  08:24 PM ET, 03/10/2012

 
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