Newt Gingrich thrust the reproductive rights issueinto the GOP campaign spotlight on Tuesday,criticizing both Mitt Romney and President BarackObama's records on requiring Catholicorganizations to provide contraceptive aids insome circumstances. Rick Santorum vowed to makethe issue a central part of his strugglingcampaign.
Gingrich, a Catholic, told GOP voters in swing-state Ohio that Obama had declared war on theCatholic Church. He and his GOP rivals haveblasted the administration's new regulationrequiring church-affiliated employers to coverbirth control for their workers. Some Catholicssay the rule would force Catholic institutions toviolate their religious convictions.
Romney also has criticized the Obama policy, butGingrich said Romney was no better than Obama onthe issue.
"There's been a lot of talk about the Obamaadministration's attack on the Catholic church,"he said at Price Hill Chili restaurant inCincinnati. "Well, the fact is, Gov. Romneyinsisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortionpills, against their religious beliefs, when hewas governor."
In late 2005, Romney required all Massachusettshospitals, including Catholic ones, to provideemergency contraception to rape victims. SomeCatholics say the so-called morning-after pill isa form of abortion.
Romney ignored Gingrich's criticism while speakingto voters in Loveland, Colo., focusing instead onObama's "assault on religion -- an assault on theconviction and religious beliefs on members of oursociety."
He said the administration's recent ruling oncontraception was "a real blow ... to our friendsin the Catholicfaith" and likened "morning-afterpills" to "abortive pills."
"This kind of assault on religion will end if I'mpresident of the United States," Romney pledged.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., Santorum unleashed ablistering attack on Obama's health care rules.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's not just your economicrights. It's your freedom of religion. It's yourfreedom of speech," Santorum, also a devoutCatholic.
The sharp rhetoric against the Obamaadministration's treatment of religiousinstitutions took place as voters in Colorado andMinnesota prepared for GOP caucuses Tuesday night.Romney hoped for more victories following aconsecutive wins in Florida and Nevada. Santorumwas hoping his weeks of criticism of Romney wouldcatapult him to victory.
"You've got a big caucus tonight," Santorum toldsupporters in Colorado. "If you look at the polls,today could be a very good day for conservatives."
The outcome of Colorado and Minnesota isn't likelyto dramatically change the dynamics of the GOPpresidential race. But a Santorum victory ineither state could give him a boost -- for a day atleast -- while shining a light on Romney's troubleswith conservative voters who long have beenskeptical of his candidacy.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and fierceanti-abortion rights opponent, bypassed Nevada andFlorida to essentially camp out in Colorado andMinnesota and spent the past week assailing Romneyto lay the groundwork among conservatives whodominate. Santorum has portrayed himself as theonly conservative choice in those caucus states.
In recent days, Romney has sensed a Santorumthreat and has sought to prove that he, too, hasstrong conservative stances on social issues,despite a history of reversing himself on abortionand gay rights.
In sharp contrast to the confidence Romney exudedbefore the Florida and Nevada contests, hiscampaign was in pre-emptive damage control modehours before the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses.
Romney political director Rich Beeson wrote in amemo to reporters that "Mitt Romney is not goingto win every contest."
"John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expectour opponents will notch a few wins, too," Beesonwrote. "But unlike the other candidates, ourcampaign has the resources and organization tokeep winning over the long run."
Romney was more optimistic before voters.
"Colorado's got something to say about who ournominee is going to be and I think I'm going to bethat nominee," he told a few hundred supportersgathered at an RV America showroom in Loveland.
Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also are onballots in Colorado and Minnesota.
The latest step in the month-old nomination fightcomes as Obama's campaign is asking topfundraisers to support a Democratic-leaningoutside group that backs his re-election bid andis trying to compete with the tens of millions ofdollars collected by Republican-backed outsidegroups in the presidential race.
It's a reversal for Obama, who has long beenopposed to "super" political action committeesthat can spend unlimited amounts of cash toinfluence elections. The decision comes at a timewhen Romney is in a position of strength, afterhis allied groups successfully beat backchallenges by opponents early in the primaryseason.
Heading into Tuesday, Romney leads in the hunt fordelegates to the Republican nominating conventionthis summer, with 101, while Gingrich has 32.Santorum and Paul trail with 17 and 9respectively, according to The Associated Presscount. Colorado has a total of 36 delegates,including 33 up for grabs while Minnesota has atotal of 40 delegates, with 37 at stake. Missourihas no delegates at stake as it holds what amountsto a beauty contest. Instead, Missouri will awardits 52 delegates througha system of caucuses andconventions, starting March 17.
In Minnesota, Eric Radtke, 32, was looking for theparty's best hope to defeat Obama in the fall andsaid he planned to vote for Romney because ofthat.
"Every time I hear him he seems to exude the levelof respect for this country that I think itdeserves," said Radtke, a telecommunicationssalesman from Shakopee, Minn.
Terry Groetken couldn't disagree more. The 71-year-old retired optical salesman from Plymouth,Minn., said he would have to "hold my nose" tovote for Romney in November if he wins thenomination because he doesn't trust him to stayconsistent on core conservative principles.Groetken planned to vote for Gingrich. "He's abulldog," Groetken said.