Mitt Romney is pressing to refocus the Republican presidential race on jobs and the economy in the sprint to Super Tuesday contests next week, looking to blunt rival Rick Santorum’s bid to sow doubts about his record on social issues.
Romney took his economic-focused pitch to a community center today in Bellevue, Washington, where he reminded voters that their backing in the state’s caucuses tomorrow could bolster or sap his momentum heading into Super Tuesday.
“There are going to be a bunch of states that are going to make their mind up in the next couple of days, but you guys are first,” Romney told about 800 people. Though “it won’t take a long time” to participate in the caucuses, “it will just make a big difference.”
Romney emphasized his plans to cut federal spending and taxes and balance the budget, as well as proposals to target China for currency manipulation and intellectual property theft -- actions he said President Barack Obama has failed to prevent.
“When this president ran for office, he said he was concerned about how China was not playing fair, not playing by the rules, and he said he’d take them to the mat. Well, since then, they’ve walked all over him,” Romney said.
He pledged that as president, on his first day in office he would “label China a currency manipulator, and apply tariffs where they’re stealing jobs.”
Romney has been stressing economic themes after a flap he caused earlier this week over a contraception-related issue gave Santorum a chance to question the former Massachusetts governor’s core beliefs and commitment to socially conservative principles.
Both men were aiming for victories in the 11 contests to be held March 6, which will award the largest delegate haul in the campaign so far and could go a long way toward determining the nominee in an unpredictable Republican race.
A poll released today by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut, shows the primary race tightening in Ohio, a Super Tuesday state that is expected to be a battleground in the general election. Santorum has a four-point lead in the poll, 35 percent to Romney’s 31 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 29 and March 1 among 517 likely Republican primary voters.
The previous Quinnipiac poll in Ohio gave Santorum a seven-point lead, 36 percent to 29 percent.
Santorum, seeking to rebound from losses to Romney in the Arizona and Michigan Feb. 28 primaries, spoke today in Chillicothe, Ohio, and said he was waging “a grassroots insurgent campaign against the big boys.”
Addressing an audience at a local high school, he stressed his goal of reducing “government control of your lives.”
Romney, campaigning yesterday in Fargo, North Dakota, depicted himself as a defender of social conservatives’ priorities, telling a voter who asked him about gun laws that he would “protect the right to bear arms.”
He used the question as a chance to reiterate his support for a Senate measure that would let employers deny health-insurance coverage for contraception and other services that violate their principles. The legislation, proposed by Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who backs Romney, was defeated yesterday on a 51-48 vote in the Democrat-controlled chamber.
Romney created confusion Feb. 29 about his stance on the legislation, telling an Ohio television interviewer he didn’t support it, only to have his campaign quickly issue a statement saying he did back the measure and had misunderstood the question.
Though Romney himself later stressed his support for Blunt’s proposal, the dust-up over the matter reflected doubts many Republican rank-and-file voters have about his stance on social issues.
Santorum, 53, the former Pennsylvania senator who has emphasized his opposition to abortion rights, seized on the episode yesterday, saying it gave voters insight into “what’s in the gut of Governor Romney.”
“If I was asked a question like that, my gut reaction” would always be ‘you stand for the First Amendment. You stand for freedom of religion,’” he told voters gathered in an airport hangar in Atlanta, Georgia. “You want someone who at their core believes and is going to step up and fight, not put them on the back burner.”
He urged his listeners to “stand with the conservative” in the race.
Santorum later campaigned in Washington state, telling voters at a church rally in Spokane that the “best chance” Republicans have to defeat Obama “is not to go along with the good old boys who always want to nominate a moderate.” he said.
At Romney’s stop yesterday in North Dakota -- a state with caucuses on Super Tuesday -- he blamed Obama for slowing U.S. energy development.
Obama “has tried to slow the growth of oil and gas production in this country, and coal production,” Romney said during an appearance in Fargo. “Far from taking credit, he should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what’s going on today,” he told a few hundred people seated on a warehouse floor at Wrigley Mechanical, a mechanical contracting company in Fargo.
Romney’s promise to expand energy development came in a state where an oil boom has fueled an 8.7 percent growth in economic health during Obama’s presidency, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index that measures such statistics as tax collections, personal income, home prices and employment.
The Obama administration has emphasized data that show domestic crude oil production at the highest level in eight years. At the same time, U.S. warnings to Iran about its nuclear program helped drive gasoline futures to a nine-month high.