Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, appealing to tea party and Christian groups in Ohio on Saturday, criticized rival Mitt Romney for seeking a “bailout” for the 2002 Winter Olympics and complaining about congressional earmarks.
The former Pennsylvania senator told a group of tea party activists in Columbus that while Romney has criticized him for accepting earmarks and often cites running the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City as an accomplishment, Romney sought federal assistance for the games.
“He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake Olympic games, in an earmark,” Santorum said. “Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?”
The Romney campaign responded by saying that a majority of federal funds for the Salt Lake City games were spent on security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, unlike earmarks Santorum has sought. Romney was in Salt Lake City on Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email. “There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo.”
It was Santorum’s second straight day campaigning in Ohio, which Santorum called “the epicenter, ground zero, the place that must be won” in a speech last night at a Summit County Republican Party dinner in Akron. Ohio is one of the 11 states that will hold nominating contests on Super Tuesday, March 6.
Besides questioning Romney’s “hypocrisy” on the Olympics earmark, Santorum told Tea Party activists in Columbus that President Barack Obama’s agenda isn’t based on Christianity.
“It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology,” Santorum said, according to The Associated Press. “Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”
Asked to clarify his comments after a later speech at an Ohio Christian Alliance luncheon in Columbus, Santorum said he was referring to the Obama administration’s rule that employers, including religious-affiliated organizations, provide coverage for contraceptives in health-care plans. Obama has said private insurance companies would pay for the coverage.
“It is a different set of moral values that they are imposing on people who have a constitutional right to have their own values within the church,” Santorum told reporters.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt called Santorum’s comments “the latest low in a Republican primary campaign that has been fueled by distortions, ugliness, and searing pessimism and negativity.”
“The president has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom,” Santorum said in response.
Santorum’s comments in Ohio came a day after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine switched his endorsement to Santorum from Romney.
DeWine said that, while he had thought Romney was in the best position to be the Republican presidential nominee because of his “massive financial and organizational advantage,” Romney’s campaign “never picked up enthusiasm.”
“I came to the conclusion the odds are this guy can’t win the general election,” DeWine said in an interview following a Santorum speech Feb. 16 in Georgetown, Ohio. “What I’m seeing with Rick Santorum is a candidate who gets better and better every day.”
Romney backers have dismissed DeWine’s switch, saying his backing would have little influence on the outcome of the race. Before endorsing Romney, DeWine had backed former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential bid, which ended in August.
Another Romney supporter and co-chairman of his Arizona state campaign, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, said he called Romney’s staff to say he would step down from his post amid allegations of misconduct made by a man with whom he previously had a relationship, The Associated Press reported.
Babeu, a congressional candidate in Arizona’s 4th District, denied claims he tried to threaten the man, a former campaign volunteer, with deportation if their past relationship was made public, AP said.
The campaign supports Babeu’s decision to resign from his volunteer position with the campaign “so he can focus on the allegations against him,” Saul said in an email.
DeWine’s endorsement is a boost for Santorum, whose standing in the polls rose after wins in three states last week. He is now leading in polls in Michigan, which holds its primary on Feb. 28, and in Ohio. Democrat Obama is ahead of all of the top Republican presidential candidates in recent polls.
A victory for Santorum in Michigan, Romney’s native state, would make him the leading candidate for those in the party most opposed to abortion and higher taxes.
In his Ohio speeches, Santorum said he would provide a sharper contrast to Obama in the fall than Romney, especially in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and he has been critical of the negative ads that Romney and his super PAC have been running.
“You have an opportunity in this primary to reject negativism, destructive politics, and rally around a vision for this country that is hopeful and optimistic,” Santorum said in the speech to the Ohio Christian Alliance.
Santorum plans a rally today in Georgia, which also votes March 6 and where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigned on Saturday with former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. Gingrich said that, although he expects to carry Georgia, his home state, no candidate can count on winning his home state this year.
“It’s very important we do well here,” Gingrich told reporters after a speech in Gwinnett County. “That gives us a spring board then to go across the whole country, and that’s part of what we’re counting on.”
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