Santorum pounds on Romney as he campaigns through Louisiana

March 23, 2012

Rick Santorum has a new campaign prop and some fresh lines, but the long-shot Republican presidential hopeful still faces the same problem that has dogged his campaign for weeks: He is way behind in the delegate count in a race that is all about delegate counts.

Ahead by double digits in polls here, Santorum is expected to do well and to continue his streak of strong showings in the South. Yet, with a delegate gap that keeps getting wider, the final vote tally in Louisiana may not matter much in the long run given that the former senator from Pennsylvania faces daunting odds and a difficult stretch of contests next month.

In the run-up to Saturday’s GOP primary, where 20 of the state’s 46 delegates are up for grabs, Santorum campaigned on energy and health care, slamming front-runner Mitt Romney as the Etch a Sketch candidate while casting himself as a conviction conservative with beliefs that are etched in stone.

With its sizable evangelical population — 57 percent of the 2008 Republican electorate, according to exit polls — Louisiana is a good fit for Santorum.

He called on Republicans here to press “the reset button” — a dig at a Romney adviser who suggested the former Massachusetts governor would reset his campaign, “like an Etch A Sketch,” once he won the nomination.

“Louisiana has an opportunity . . . to do what’s been done, oh, four or five or six or eight times in this race, and that is to change the dynamics of this race,” he said, speaking to about 200 people at the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office Rifle Range. “You have an opportunity here to vote for someone that believes in your values, someone who understands and is willing to be unabashedly pro-
family and pro-life, not someone who is all over the map.”

Santorum spent part of Friday at the rifle range in West Monroe, where he donned headphones and fired off a few rounds. While he shot, a woman shouted: “Pretend it’s Obama.” Santorum said later that he didn’t hear the comment. “It’s a very terrible and horrible remark, and I’m glad I didn’t hear it,” Santorum said. The Secret Service said it would look into the matter.

Romney still has major advantages in the nominating contest. He trounced Santorum in Tuesday’s Illinois primary, still has the most money and a bigger campaign apparatus, and, most important, leads Santorum by roughly 300 delegates in the race to 1,144.

Santorum, however, slammed the delegate tally as “Romney math,” insisting that he is doing better than those numbers show, saying that he would have an advantage going into the convention in Tampa because of his conservative credentials and record on health care.

Acknowledging that he is likely to struggle to win here, Romney noted the two-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act and promised to repeal the law, which faces a Supreme Court challenge next week.

“The White House is not celebrating Obamacare today,” Romney said, standing before signs reading “Repeal and replace Obamacare” at a campaign stop in a shopping mall in Metairie, in the New Orleans area. “This presidency has been a failure, and the centerpiece of that failure is this piece of legislation back here, Obamacare.”

Romney made only a veiled mention of the law he passed in Massachusetts that served as a model for the national bill, framing the issue of health care as one of state’s rights.

“I’m going to return to the states the authority and the responsibility that states have always had to care for their poor and their uninsured,” Romney said. “The solution for Massachusetts is quite different than, let’s say, the solution for Texas.”

Santorum has made health care the centerpiece of his campaign, arguing that Romney’s record on mandates makes him “uniquely disqualified” to go up against Obama.

April could be a cruel month for Santorum’s campaign, with a stretch of contests that favor Romney. The fight doesn’t turn back South until May, when North Carolina, West Viriginia, Arkansas and Texas vote.

Keeping up the momentum until May could be difficult.

“He needs some breakthrough moment with a more complex electorate,” said G. Terry Madonna, a longtime Santorum observer who directs the Franklin and Marshall College Poll. “He will likely do well in Louisiana. But he is in a box that he doesn’t seem to be able to get out of because he keeps narrowing his message and going back to his demographic, so he is limited.”

As he wrapped up one of his final appearances in Louisiana, Santorum’s campaign sent out a plea for support suggesting just how hard the road ahead will be. The subject line was simple: “Help Needed.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
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