Santorum takes stabs at Romney and Kennedy

A NEW COURSE Now that the 2012 election is approaching, Rick Santorum said there’s a ‘‘different field and a different set of issues.’’ A NEW COURSE
Now that the 2012 election is approaching, Rick Santorum said there’s a ‘‘different field and a different set of issues.’’
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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NEWTON — It may seem an odd way to appeal to a crowd of Massachusetts voters: First, attack Mitt Romney, the last Republican to hold the governor’s office. Then, go after President Kennedy, arguably the state’s most revered Democrat.

But Rick Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania who is courting conservatives as he weighs a presidential run, came to Massachusetts and did just that yesterday, blaming Kennedy for marginalizing religion in public life and Romney for signing the Massachusetts health care law.

Santorum’s criticisms were striking not only because he targeted two of the state’s political figures on their home turf — even criticizing the first Catholic president in a speech to a Catholic group — but also because he campaigned for Romney in 2008.

Back then, Santorum, known for his outspoken opposition to gay rights and abortion, traveled with Romney across the South, telling Republican primary voters, “if you want to make sure we have a conservative nominee, you vote for Mitt Romney.’’

Now that the 2012 election is approaching, though, Santorum said he is “kicking around a run for president,’’ and there’s a “different field and a different set of issues.’’

“The issues, unfortunately, don’t line up particularly well for Governor Romney this time, particularly with health care being front and center on the stage,’’ Santorum told reporters at the Hotel Indigo in Newton.

“I feel we need someone who is a strong, principled conservative who believes not in government mandates, not in government control of the health care system, but in a patient-centered approach to health care,’’ he said.

Santorum also said that the 2006 Massachusetts law and President Obama’s overhaul of the national health care system “tend to drive employers out of the private sector plans because they’re expensive and more people end up on the government plan.’’

“Ultimately, it’s a failure,’’ Santorum said.

The state’s universal health care law is shaping up as one of Romney’s biggest vulnerabilities, as he gears up for a second run for president. Democrats, hoping to put him in an awkward position with GOP voters, have showered him with unwelcome praise for signing the measure, saying it paved the way for Obama’s law. Romney’s Republican rivals have repeatedly lambasted him for the same reason.

Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, responded to Santorum’s attack by saying the Massachusetts law may not work for every state.

“The Massachusetts health care law works for Massachusetts, but each state should be free to come up with its own health care solution,’’ Fehrnstrom said in a statement. “A one-size-fits-all national plan that raises taxes is the wrong way to go.’’

Santorum, who lacks Romney’s national political network and fund-raising prowess, said he will decide in the next several months whether to run for president. He said he has visited New Hampshire 12 times and believes voters are hungry for an “authentic, conservative message.’’

In remarks to about 50 members of the group Catholic Citizenship — which encourages parishioners to speak out on issues of public policy — Santorum decried what he called the growing secularization of American public life.

He traced the problem to Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which Kennedy — then a candidate for president — sought to allay concerns about his Catholicism by declaring, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.’’

Santorum, who is Catholic, said he is “frankly appalled’’ by Kennedy’s remark.

“That was a radical statement,’’ Santorum said, and it did “great damage.’’

“We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process,’’ Santorum said.

The crowd responded with nods and applause.

Santorum also criticized Catholic parishes for their “lukewarm faith’’ and urged the crowd not to donate to Catholic schools that stray from church teachings.

“You’re feeding the beast,’’ he said, sparking applause. “The heresy that goes in Catholic schools in America is amazing.’’

Fielding questions, he spoke about sharia law, Israel, and liberal influence in American universities and media.

Asked by one man about “gay and transsexual activists’’ raising money for Democrats, Santorum said they had money to give away because “most of them don’t have kids.’’

“We need to be more engaged, and we need to be unapologetic about who we are and why we’re doing it,’’ he said. “America needs the truth that believers bring to the public square.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at