Romney, Santorum each claim conservative mantle before Illinois primary

On the eve of the hotly contested Illinois primary, each of the leading Republican presidential candidates drew inspiration from touchstones of conservatism on Monday and offered himself as the standard-bearer for the right’s fight against President Obama.

Mitt Romney traveled to the urban campus where Obama once taught constitutional law to lecture the president on the principle of economic freedom, paying homage to the University of Chicago’s legacy as the intellectual center of free-market economics.

A hundred miles west in Dixon, Rick Santorum tried to channel the spirit and vision of Ronald Reagan during a stop in the former president’s boyhood home town, hoping to give his insurgent campaign a last-minute infusion of energy.

As they journeyed across Illinois, Romney and Santorum each cast himself as the rightful heir to Reagan’s conservative mantle before voters here have their say Tuesday in what has been a tumultuous and increasingly caustic nominating contest.

Even as his campaign and its allies pummel Santorum in television advertisements here, Romney looked past his chief Republican rival in a speech castigating Obama as having “attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity: economic freedom.” Romney criticized, in particular, what he called overly burdensome regulations and taxes.

“The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid — and why it couldn’t meet their expectations, let alone ours,” Romney said. “If we don’t change course now, this assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of American families for decades to come.”

Romney framed his hypothetical general-election race vs. Obama as a choice not of party and personality but of principle.

“Our economic freedom will be on the ballot,” he said, “and I intend to offer the American people a clear choice.”

Santorum was working vigorously Monday to deny Romney that opportunity. Campaigning in the northern Illinois town where Reagan grew up, Santorum attacked Romney as a man who will say anything to win the nomination and who lacks the conservative convictions that he said Republican voters should be looking for.

With a statue of Reagan on horseback behind him, Santorum cast himself as the true conservative in the race for the Republican nomination.

He urged voters to make their voices heard on behalf of the values Reagan espoused as president and, in doing so, to help prevent Romney from becoming the party’s nominee.

“A lot is at stake [Tuesday],” he said. “The honor of the town that molded this man [Reagan]. What will Dixon say? Will they stand up and uphold freedom, uphold the legacy of this great man and what he did to this country?”

As he has done throughout the campaign in Illinois, he attacked Romney for enacting a health-care law in Massachusetts that included a mandate that everyone purchase insurance or pay a penalty.

Calling repeal of Obama’s health-care law the No. 1 issue of the campaign, Santorum said: “Why would the Republican Party nominate someone on the most important issue of the day — freedom, Reagan’s freedom — why would we take that off the table? That’s why you have to help me here in Illinois.”

Casting himself as an underdog, Santorum said he is being outspent “5-, 7-, 10-to-1” by Romney. He said that money is going to fund “robocalls, radio ads, television ads — all tearing down, tearing down. No vision. No hope. No promise of what America is to be. We must do better than that.”

Romney tried to offer just that promise in his Chicago speech. He has been criticized by some Republicans for focusing too much on negative campaigning and the state-by-state mechanics of winning the nomination and not providing an overarching, positive vision for where he would lead the country.

In a 19-minute address, which he delivered wearing a suit and with the aid of teleprompters, Romney was shy on specifics. But he portrayed his economic proposals — to loosen federal regulations, rein in government spending, lower the debt and decrease corporate taxes to spur job growth in the private sector — as coming under the banner of economic freedom. He said the word “freedom” 29 times.

The symbolism of his speech was not lost on anyone in attendance. Romney spoke in a lecture hall of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, where Obama once served as an advisory board member, and across the grassy mall from the law school campus where Obama lectured.

The speech drew the ire of the Obama campaign, which quickly faulted Romney for proposing tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy and for assuming that those cuts would spur enough growth in government revenues to help close deficits.

“The question is, who is going to benefit from these tax cuts?” Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton University economics professor and Obama adviser, told reporters on a conference call. “The analysis suggests it’s not really the middle class.”

Romney spoke with particular disdain for government bureaucrats.

“Our freedom is never safe, because unelected, unaccountable regulators are always on the prowl,” Romney said. “And under President Obama, they are multiplying like proverbial rabbits.”

Romney argued that what he considers an onerous regulatory and tax system is stifling entrepreneurial dreams and innovation.

“We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam,” he said. “Today, we can’t even build a pipeline. We once led the world in manufacturing, exports and infrastructure investment. Today, we lead the world in lawsuits.”

Staff writer Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics