Rick Santorum tries to undercut Newt Gingrich

Mr. Conservative

Rick Santorum swept into the home turf of Republican presidential rival Newt Gingrich on Thursday with a full-bore family-values pitch to the same Georgia evangelicals whom the former House speaker is counting on to rescue his flagging candidacy.

Five days before the Georgia primary, a must-win for Gingrich, Santorum sought to undercut the former House speaker in the state that Gingrich represented in Congress for two decades.

Santorum mentioning Gingrich by name. But his target was clear as he laid out his record on social issues to a crowd in the Council chambers here at Dalton City Hall in northwestern Georgia.

“Unlike anybody else in this race, I’ve led the charge,” the former Pennsylvania senator told the crowd. “It’s one thing to be pro-life, pro family, pro-marriage, taking on the issues of faith and freedom in our country, the core values of life. It’s one thing to vote that way. It’s another thing to stand up and fight and lead on those issues.”

“That’s right,” a man in the audience called out.

“I’ve led,” Santorum continued, sparking a burst of applause.

Santorum’s base of conservative Christians and Tea Party supporters has vaulted him well ahead of Gingrich in national polls of Republicans.

Fierce competition over social issues among top contenders for the party’s White House nomination has left some Republicans fretting about the danger of alienating swing voters in the fall campaign against President Obama.

Mitt Romney, who is leading the race for GOP convention delegates, ignited a new controversy Wednesday by saying he opposed a Senate measure that would allow employers to limit coverage of contraceptives if they have moral objections, only to reverse himself, saying he had misunderstood what it would do.

On a bus tour of Georgia this week, Gingrich has largely muted his conservative record on social issues, stressing instead his plan to reduce gasoline prices by spurring new domestic energy production.

Santorum, by contrast, opened and closed his first Georgia campaign rally on Thursday by touting his ideological purity. He said Romney’s tactic of destroying under-funded opponents in the primaries with blasts of negative ads would prove fruitless in a general-election race to unseat the president.

“What’s a winning formula,” he said, “is having better ideas, motivating the base of the Republican Party, being authentic, having the character to go out there and talk about core convictions in America, and attracting people who are looking for trustworthiness…someone that of course they may not agree with on everything — who does? — but someone at least they know that what you say you believe, you actually do believe.”

With his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, at his side, Santorum reminded the crowd that he and his wife had home-schooled their seven children.

“It’s a great sacrifice that my wife, Karen, and I have made to try to give what we think is the best possible opportunity for our children to be successful, not just economically, but in a whole lot of other areas that we think are important — virtue and character and spirituality,” he said.

Santorum’s appearance in Dalton came 48 hours after Gingrich campaigned in the same city, a center of carpet manufacturing. Santorum mentioned that his plan for a tax break for manufacturers would apply to any employer that invested “in plant equipment in Dalton, Georgia.”

He otherwise spent little time addressing the economy. But he did accuse GOP rivals of advancing economic plans that call for shrinking government while failing to address a surge in public assistance costs, which he described as an inevitable consequence of a breakdown of family among poor Americans.

“Good luck over the long term keeping government small if families break down,” he said.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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