COLUMBUS -- Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum accused President Obama on Saturday of imposing a "theology" on America not rooted in the Bible but in political gamesmanship.
"It's not about you," he told about 300 suburban Columbus Tea Party members. "It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your job. It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."
The Obama campaign immediately shot back.
"This is just the latest low in a Republican primary campaign that has been fueled by distortions, ugliness, and searing pessimism and negativity -- a stark contrast with the President, who is focused every day on creating jobs and restoring economic security for the middle class," campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said.
Mr. Santorum, who is a Catholic, later told reporters his remark did not imply the President isn't a Christian.
He was initially talking about energy policy when he made the remark, suggesting that decisions that stand in the way of hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas and denying construction of a pipeline through the center of the country are rooted in strategy to attract votes.
But later, when questioned after a speech before the Ohio Christian Alliance, Mr. Santorum applied his remarks to the Obama Administration's controversial decision requiring health-insurance policies for employees of religious-based hospitals and other institutions to include coverage for contraception.
"Obviously he is now forcing people to do things that he believes they … should do," Mr. Santorum said. "The Catholic Church has a philosophy that says that this is a wrong. He's saying, 'No, I've got a different … theology.' You may want to call it secular values. Whatever you want to call it, it's a different moral value."
"The President of the United States is exercising his values and trumping the values of the church," he said. "If you don't want to call it a theology, I'm fine. Have them let me know what they want to call it."
"It is a new low," he said. "The President has reached a new low in this country's history of oppressing religious freedom that we've never seen before."
During his first two days of campaigning in Ohio, Mr. Santorum has focused largely on conservative and Tea Party territory that has been receptive to his message, which is heavy on patriotism, faith, the Declaration of Independence, and pro-life values.
He did, however, finish this campaign leg in an urban area, speaking Saturday night to Summit County Republicans in Akron.
At the gathering Saturday night, Mr. Santorum won the largest straw poll in Ohio.
With 1,068 people casting secret ballots, Mr. Santorum received 74 percent of the vote. Next was Mr. Romney, with 15 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich with 6 percent and Ron Paul with 5 percent.
"Ohio is Rick Santorum country," declared Bryan Williams, who announced the results of the straw poll after Mr. Santorum spoke.
Ohio is part of his strategy to capture key Midwestern states, in addition to his home state of Pennsylvania -- states that supported Mr. Obama in 2008 and are considered vital to sending a Republican back to the White House in 2012.
"Ohio's important for every Republican," Mr. Santorum said. "… [I]f you're going to win the presidency, you got to win Ohio. You got to."
Ohio's primary is part of Super Tuesday on March 6, but Ohioans have been casting absentee ballots by mail and in person since Jan. 31.
Mr. Santorum sought to turn chief opponent Mitt Romney's efforts to raise money this weekend in friendly Utah against him.
The former U.S. senator accused the former Massachusetts governor of hypocrisy for criticizing Mr. Santorum for seeking budget earmarks for Pennsylvania after Mr. Romney sought federal funds for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Mr. Romney has used Mr. Santorum's votes for budget earmarks to challenge his claim as the real fiscal conservative in the race.
"Mitt Romney is saying, 'Oh well, Rick Santorum voted for earmarks,' " Mr. Santorum said.
"What he doesn't tell you is that while Mitt Romney's greatest accomplishments, one of the things he talks about the most, is how he heroically showed up upon the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games," he said.
"He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail them out . …
"Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?" he asked.
Mr. Romney has touted his role as head of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games Organizing Committee.
This weekend Mr. Romney is mining, for campaign cash, the connections he made during that effort.
He will return to battleground Ohio on Monday for another fund-raiser in Cincinnati hosted by the American Financial Group.
"Sometimes when you shoot from the hip, you end up shooting yourself in the foot," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. "There is a pretty wide gulf between seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics and seeking earmarks for polar bear exhibits at the Pittsburgh Zoo.
"Mitt Romney wants to ban earmarks," he said. "Senator Santorum wants more bridges to nowhere and more bloated spending in Washington."
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.