Rick Santorum presses culture wars attack

Video: Speaking to a crowd at the Americans for Prosperity Presidential forum in Michigan Saturday, Santorum said he planned to "talk to minority communities, not about giving them food stamps and government dependency, but about creating jobs."

DETROIT — Rick Santorum has opened up a new and provocative front in the political culture wars as he boldly tries to cast the race for the White House as a battle between the secular and the religious.

In back-to-back speeches over the weekend, the candidate described President Obama as “a snob” for focusing on the importance of a college education and disparaged the idea of a separation between church and state by attacking President John F. Kennedy, who made it a key point in his 1960 campaign.

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Campaigning here Saturday, Santorum said Obama’s focus on higher education constitutes “indoctrination” into the president’s way of thinking.

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

Santorum’s main argument to conservative Republican voters is that he is the anti-Obama, a cultural warrior for the right who can draw a clear contrast and ignite passion and excitement for the conservative cause in a way that rival Mitt Romney cannot.

Santorum’s strident rhetoric comes as his advantages in the polls, both in Michigan and nationally, have shrunk and his argument that he is the only “full-spectrum conservative” in the race has been challenged by Romney and damaged by Santorum’s own admission that he backed No Child Left Behind, a George W. Bush administration school reform initiative, even though he didn’t believe in it.

Santorum pulled out a narrow, surprise win in Iowa by emphasizing his faith, and in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, social conservatives helped deliver a string of victories this month that propelled him to the top of the polls.

After trying to differentiate himself as a blue-collar conservative on economic issues, Santorum appears to be going back to his earlier playbook, mixing faith and politics, while Romney tries to focus the debate of on jobs and the economy.

Polls show that Romney continues to struggle with evangelicals, social conservatives and working-class Republicans and to have trouble connecting with ordinary voters.

The former Massachusetts governor’s offhand comment last week that his wife has a “couple of Cadillacs” underscored his inability to connect with the type of blue-collar workers that Santorum is aiming to reach.

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

As he did in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, Santorum continues to campaign in churches, calling on people of faith to see this GOP race as a contest between the secular and the religious. He emphasizes that his worldview is grounded in faith and family.

His large family and the fact that his children are home-schooled have become a touchstone for his candidacy, confirming to social conservatives that he is one of them.

Santorum and his aides insist it is the media that focuses on social issues, but the candidate spent an hour Saturday lecturing to a group of about 1,000 people in a church auditorium in Hixon, Tenn., about the dangers of a feel-good culture.

“True happiness comes from doing God’s will,” he said as the audience at Central Baptist Church cheered and gave him a nearly minute-long standing ovation. “It comes from not doing what you want to do, but doing what you ought to do.”

At a rally Sunday evening in Davison, Mich., that opened with a prayer and gospel hymns, Santorum was introduced as a “man who knows a nation cannot rise without God’s aid.”

He defended his record as a conservative and said, “Governor Romney, why are you attacking me as not being conservative enough? How dare you say I’m not a fiscal conservative. Ladies and gentlemen, I know what team I’m on. I’m on the conservative team that stands up for the values that make this country great.”

Santorum’s rallies have consistently drawn protesters who object to his views on gay rights and faith. A protester in Hixon held up a sign saying that America is a democracy, not a theocracy.

On the ground in Michigan, where Romney has hammered Santorum as a big spender who voted five times to increase the debt ceiling and supported expensive, taxpayer-funded earmarks, polls show that support for Santorum among fiscal and social conservatives has been cut in half.

“What Romney’s strategy has done is to erase the lead that Santorum had with fiscal conservatives, but by doing that he also cut into the lead Santorum had with social conservatives because there is an overlay,” said Steve Mitchell, who is president of Mitchell Research and Communications and conducted four polls in February.

Mitchell said that roughly 50 to 55 percent of voters in the Michigan race identify themselves as evangelicals, and Santorum is working to boost his support among those voters even as his credentials as fiscal conservative have been assailed.

“His campaign in Michigan is made up in a large part of evangelicals,” Mitchell said. “That’s why he is taking that stand; he is really trying to bring home the social conservatives at the end of the race.”

While Romney has cast himself as the conservative businessman, Santorum has positioned himself as the candidate with the common touch, highlighting his blue-collar roots and his Catholic faith — he has often said that he comes from a place where people tote a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

And by slamming Obama for being a “snob,” Santorum, if only indirectly, also points a finger at Romney’s wealth and status as the establishment’s candidate.

“He is making an indirect appeal to those voters who might have looked oddly on Mitt Romney’s Cadillac comment,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “But there is not a cohesive overall national strategy. He is throwing mud on the wall to see if it will stick. And he wants to ratchet up the fiery rhetoric to activate the base and get them out.

“These are short plays because, in the long run, the game is going to be for independents.”

 
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