Romney’s Challengers Step Up Attacks on Front-Runner’s Credentials

Two candidates seeking to derail Mitt Romney’s march to the Republican presidential nomination are stepping up appeals to South Carolina voters, saying the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t share their values and voting for him could give President Barack Obama a second term.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania addressed a candidate forum last night in Duncan, South Carolina, while Romney campaigned for the support of military voters and retirees in Hilton Head, along the state’s coast.

“If we run a moderate who is in any way close to where Obama is, we’ll lose,” Gingrich said. “If we end up splitting the conservative vote, we’re going to stumble into nominating somebody that 95 percent of the people in this room are going to be very uncomfortable with. It’s just that simple.”

Santorum urged South Carolinians not to vote for a candidate based on claims of electability, saying the state’s voters pride themselves on “strong traditional values.”

Romney’s campaign released an online ad today that seeks to address concerns some voters might have about his changed position on abortion during his political career. In his campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002, Romney backed abortion rights, but he has since changed his views.

“He was a great pro-life governor and he’ll be a great pro-life president,” Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who worked with Romney on the abortion issue when he was Massachusetts governor, says in the advertisement.

Support for Santorum

A group of about 150 conservative religious leaders voted today to support Santorum, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a conference call with reporters.

“There is this unanimous agreement about the need to replace Barack Obama, and the strong consensus that emerged is that Rick Santorum is the best way to do it,” Perkins said.

Among those attending the two-day meeting at a ranch near Bleiblerville, Texas, were the Reverend Donald Wildmon, founder of the America Family Association, and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

New Efforts

There won’t be a coordinated effort among those attending the event, Perkins said, though he expects various groups to start new efforts to encourage their members to support Santorum.

The endorsement followed speeches by supporters of each of the Republican candidates except Jon Huntsman Jr., Perkins said. The group took three votes before 115 attendees opted for Santorum, who continued his campaign in South Carolina with a stop today at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville. He told diners that he has a record of attracting conservative voters across party lines.

To win the White House, he said, “you need Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin.” As the grandson of a coal miner, Santorum said, he has a “much better chance of doing that than an executive for Bain Capital.”

Gingrich told reporters after his remarks at the Duncan forum last night that he will use public appearances in the state to contrast his record with Romney’s on abortion, gun rights, taxes and jobs policy and present Romney’s record as governor as too liberal for South Carolina voters.

Conservative Unity Doubted

Stephen Brown, 52, a Greenville attorney and a former Republican Party county chairman who attended the forum, said, that while he supports Santorum, he doubts conservative voters would unite around either him or Gingrich.

“I’ve very concerned about that,” he said. “The problem is folks are already very committed to one or the other.”

Romney hasn’t focused on Gingrich, Santorum or any other Republican rival in his recent public remarks. Instead, he has defended his business record, as he did yesterday in Aiken, South Carolina.

“I want to get jobs for American people,” he said. “I’m concerned about the vast middle class of our nation.”

During a question-and-answer session in Hilton Head, Romney, a Mormon, was asked by one woman whether he believes in Jesus Christ.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and my savior.”

On to Florida

Romney and Gingrich are also looking beyond South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary and have spent time this week in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31.

Wins by Romney in South Carolina and Florida, after his victories in this month’s opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, would put him on a path to quickly wrap up the Republican nomination.

Last night Romney was greeted by a traffic jam of cars trying to get to his event at a Hilton Head resort. Overflow rooms were opened for those who couldn’t squeeze into the resort’s ballroom where he spoke, and some supporters gave up and left. The candidate was stuck in the traffic himself and called into the ballroom to tell those waiting that he would be there soon.

Military Spending

Romney was surrounded by military veterans at the event, where he criticized Obama’s plans to cut military spending.

“I’m very disappointed as I see our president’s plans to cut $400 billion out of our military budget over the coming decade,” he said. “I don’t think this is a time that justifies reining in the capacity of America’s military.”

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who won the South Carolina primary in 2008 on his way to the Republican nomination, stressed the importance of the state for Romney.

“If we put South Carolina into the win column -- and we can, my friends -- this campaign will be on its way to a very, very important victory,” he said.

Mitt Romney knows how to restore America’s economy,” he said, adding Obama has “mortgaged our children’s and our grandchildren’s future in the most obscene fashion.”

Besides McCain, Romney was joined at his Hilton Head stop by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former United Nations ambassador John Bolton. Like McCain, both have endorsed him.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Duncan, South Carolina at mtalev@bloomberg.net; John McCormick in Hilton Head, South Carolina at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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