By KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's administration has "fought against religion" and sought to substitute a "secular" agenda for one grounded in faith.
Obama's campaign seized on the characterization, calling Romney's comments "disgraceful."
Romney rarely ventures into social issues in his campaign speeches, but people participating in a town hall-style meeting one week before the Michigan primary asked how he would protect religious liberty.
"Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda — they have fought against religion," Romney said.
The Obama campaign linked Romney's remarks to recent comments by rival Rick Santorum, who has referred to Obama holding a "phony theology" only to say later that he wasn't attacking Obama's faith but the president's environmental views.
"These ugly and misleading attacks have no place in the campaign and they provide a very clear contrast with what President Obama is talking about: how to restore economic security for the middle class and create jobs," said Lis Smith, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.
Religious liberty has been a leading topic in recent weeks because of the Obama administration's mandate that insurance companies provide free birth control even to people employed by church-affiliated organizations, including schools and hospitals. Opponents frame the debate as one of religious liberty while proponents of the mandate say it's about women's health and access to contraception.
Romney hasn't faced voters or reporters very often since Santorum's surge and the rise of social issues in the campaign, largely avoiding questions on the subject. But he's clearly focused on the conservative Republican base that's still skeptical of him, calling himself "severely conservative" during a speech to activists in Washington earlier this month. And his lengthy, detailed answer Tuesday on religious liberty showed clear attention to the issue.
Romney implicitly invoked his own Mormon faith, also rare for the former Massachusetts governor. He said Tuesday that he cares about the issue because he is "someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance."
He also took questions on gay marriage, Supreme Court appointments and abortion — and when asked about whom he might select as his vice presidential running mate, he listed "pro-life" as the first credential he would look for.
Romney has found himself in an unexpectedly difficult fight in Michigan, his native state and a place where his advisers had long assumed he could do well. He's facing a tough challenge from Santorum, who has excited the GOP base with strong anti-abortion rhetoric and appeals to blue-collar voters.
"I care about Michigan. This is personal for me," Romney said.
The campaign's fundraising has slowed in recent weeks. The multimillionaire former venture capitalist has yet to tap his own fortune, campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said Tuesday.
Romney has stepped his attacks on Santorum in recent days. On Tuesday he argued that tea party voters should prefer him over the former Pennsylvania senator — a renewed focus on the fiscally conservative voters who identify with those groups.
"I think the tea party would find it very interesting that Rick Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling five times without getting compensating reductions in spending," Romney said, echoing the negative campaign ads his campaign and their wealthy allies are airing in the state.
Michigan's GOP primary electorate has grown increasingly conservative in recent years. Tea party voters played a key role in the 2010 midterm elections, and local tea party groups are still active.
When one questioner at Romney's town hall stood and introduced himself as someone from the tea party, the crowd cheered.
Romney's focus on those voters shows in his schedule. He's set to address a coalition of tea party groups Thursday in Milford — a rarity for the former venture capitalist, who normally holds events at local businesses. Romney has scheduled just one or two public events per day in recent weeks.