UTICA, Mich. — Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum warned against an encroaching big government to an enthusiastic evangelical and Tea Party-packed crowd here Friday.
Mr. Santorum, who is running at least even in political opinion polls with native son Mitt Romney for the Michigan Republican primary election Feb. 28, evoked the Founding Fathers in arguing he is the best candidate to go up against the Democratic incumbent.
“Your country needs you to step forward here in Michigan, first to make sure we have the right candidate in the general election to be able to beat Barack Obama, and secondly to be that state that stands up, like Pennsylvania, that turns away from big government and the snobbish elite that believes they know best for you,” Mr. Santorum said.
He didn’t mention his GOP opponent by name, but cast himself as more committed to restoring individual liberties and reducing the cost and reach of government than someone who would “just manage Washington a little better.”
The event was sponsored by the Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition, and included gospel singing and prayers.
The former Pennsylvania senator defended his election record as having run successfully in a predominantly Democratic congressional district and state. His 16-point defeat in 2006 occurred in a Democratic sweep election, he said, and he cited Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine as a Republican who lost his Senate seat in 2006 and was elected in 2010.
Mr. Santorum depicted the national health care plan known as Obamacare as the main reason he decided to run for President. He said it was designed to make more people dependent on government.
“That is the turning point. It’s the reason I’m here,” he said. Mentioning his family of seven children with wife Karen, ages three and a half up to 20 years old, he joked, “frankly the last thing I should be doing is running for president right now.”
But he said he and his wife were worried about living in a country where the government “will tell you what access to health care you’re going to have,” especially with a family like his that is “blessed with a little child who many in the medical profession, and certainly many in the world, don’t see as deserving of care and attention as others who are more able than she would be from an economic perspective.”
Three-year-old Isabella has a rare genetic disorder and recently was hospitalized with pneumonia.
He admitted he wasn’t a Michigander, but said he had a connection: his Italian immigrant grandfather came to Detroit in 1925 to work in an auto plant but then lost his job and went back to Italy before returning to southwestern Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines.
The speech drew about 800 people.
Tim Keller, 45, a Port Huron social studies teacher, brought his wife and three sons to hear Mr. Santorum, their current favorite for the nomination.
“He seems more personable, he seems more down-to-earth, he’s a regular guy,” Mr. Keller said. He said he wants to see more limited government.
“The takeovers of GM and Chrysler — unbelievable, it’s socialism and I’m against that,” Mr. Keller said.
Catherine Cantalin, 56, a homemaker from Rochester Hills in Oakland County, said Mr. Romney has never defeated anyone significant in an election, and said his record of implementing “Romneycare” in Massachusetts will be a detriment running against President Obama.
“[Mr. Santorum] is the best contrast to Barack Obama. He has the best chance of winning. Everytime he gets up and talks he educates,” she said.
The Romney campaign, whose candidate has left the Midwest after two days of campaigning in Michigan and Ohio Thursday, continued to blast Mr. Santorum as a “friend of big labor,” citing his 1996 vote in the U.S. Senate against a “right-to-work” federal law to allow workers to opt out of union representation. Labor unions refer to the legislation as “right to work for less.”
“That’s not conservatism — it’s the liberal program of Big Labor,” said Romney surrogate Greg Hartmann, a Hamilton County commissioner.
After his speech, Mr. Santorum took questions.
Mr. Santorum plans appearances for southern, central, and eastern Ohio on Friday and Saturday.
Shelby Township, a suburb north of downtown Detroit in Macomb County, is known for its so-called Reagan Democrats.
In the 2008 general election, Macomb County had the third highest vote turnout in the general election, after Wayne and Oakland counties. The county was won by Mr. Obama 223,784 to 187,663.
In the 2008 Republican primary, Mr. Romney won 45 percent of the Republican vote in Macomb County, his second highest victory percentage out of all of the state’s counties, after Oakland. That year’s evangelical favorite, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, came in a distant third with 13 percent, after John McCain — the eventual nominee — with 25 percent.
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6058.