Romney Camp Prepares for Santorum Threat

Mitt Romney sought to fend off an added challenge in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, opening a coordinated assault against Rick Santorum to combat the potential for a drawn-out nomination contest.

Amid signs Santorum strength in tonight’s Minnesota caucuses and a non-binding primary today in Missouri, Romney’s campaign turned its attention from Newt Gingrich, long seen as its toughest rival, and set its sights on the former Pennsylvania senator who won the Iowa caucuses.

Santorum took the lead in Missouri, getting 53 percent of the vote with 30 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Romney had 26 percent, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 12 percent. Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot.

In Minnesota, Santorum led with 43 percent of the vote with 7 percent of precincts reporting, according to the AP. Paul had 27 percent, followed by Romney with 18 percent and Gingrich with 12 percent.

Caucuses also are being conducted tonight in Colorado.

In an interview on a local Minnesota radio station yesterday, Romney accused Santorum of increasing government spending by allocating federal funds for local projects known as earmarks.

“His approach was not effective,” Romney told WCCO radio yesterday. “If we’re going to change Washington, we can’t just keep on sending the same people there in different chairs.”

Health-Care Issue

Santorum struck back, saying Romney’s support for a state health-care plan when he was governor of Massachusetts makes him an unacceptable Republican standard bearer because of the measure’s similarity to the federal health-care overhaul President Barack Obama pushed through Congress.

“Governor Romney on that vitally important issue of Obamacare is the weakest candidate we can put up,” Santorum told reporters in Golden, Colorado. “The issue will be about Mitt Romney’s credibility, not about Barack Obama’s record.”

The caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and the so-called beauty-contest primary in Missouri won’t directly allocate any of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. The Minnesota and Colorado caucuses represent the first step toward awarding convention delegates in those states, though tonight’s results are non-binding on that process. In Missouri, delegates will be allocated at caucuses later this year.

‘Reality Check’

Bracing for possible defeats, Romney’s campaign circulated a “reality check” memo from his political director emphasizing the lack of delegates at stake.

“We expect our opponents to notch a few wins,” Rich Beeson wrote in the memo. Romney should do well, though in the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan, Beeson said. “It is difficult to see what Governor Romney’s opponents can do to change the dynamics of the race in February.”

Still, a victory today would provide a boost for Santorum, who has seen his support drop since defeating Romney by 34 votes in the lead-off Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. While Romney won the contests since then in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada, strong support for Santorum could revive questions about Romney’s backing among fiscal conservatives and evangelical voters concerned about such social issues as abortion and gay marriage.

Anti-Abortion Record

Santorum, a Catholic with an anti-abortion record, wants to capitalize on those concerns in Minnesota, where the power of social and fiscal conservatives has grown within the Republican Party. He has spent the bulk of his time over the past week in the state.

In two days of campaigning in Colorado, Romney tried to blunt Santorum’s efforts by injecting appeals to social conservatives into his standard stump speech. He seized on a decision by the Obama administration requiring religious- affiliated nonprofit groups to purchase health insurance that covers contraception, a position at odds with the doctrine of many Catholic hospitals and universities.

“Under this president’s administration there is an assault on religion,” Romney told a crowd gathered in a warehouse in Loveland today. “This kind of assault on religion will end if I’m president of the United States.”

Yesterday, his campaign circulated a petition posted on its website accusing the Obama administration of attacking religious liberty.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, Romney vowed to immediately overturn the “liberty- and conscience- stifling regulation” if elected.

White House Comment

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today that while Obama “is committed to making sure that all women have access” to “important preventive services,” the administration “will be working with those organizations and individuals who have concerns about the implementation of this rule.”

Romney won Minnesota in his failed bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, yet aides say this year’s dynamics are different. Four years ago, Romney ran as the fiscal and social conservative alternative to Arizona Senator John McCain, who won his party’s nomination. Today, he’s viewed as the establishment pick, after gaining endorsements from party leaders and elected officials.

Supporters played down expectations in the state yesterday, where historically low voter turnout makes results hard to predict.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who quit his own presidential bid and has endorsed Romney, wouldn’t forecast a victory for him in the state, saying voters “gravitate toward the most conservative candidate -- real or perceived.”

As Romney addressed voters in Colorado, his team deployed Pawlenty to challenge Santorum’s credentials among fiscal conservatives.

“Rick has been holding himself out as the perfect conservative or the only real conservative in the race,” Pawlenty said. “Well, if you look at his record, it’s not a perfect conservative record by a long shot.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Grand Junction at llerer@bloomberg.net; Jennifer Oldham in Loveland at joldham1@bloomberg.net

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

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