Religious freedom and the American Dream itself are being threatened by the current administration under President Barack Obama — at least according to the three Republican presidential candidates who spoke before a largely evangelical crowd Saturday in Waukesha.
It’s been some time since Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum gathered together at the same event, but the Faith and Freedom Coalition made it happen inside a packed hall at the Country Springs Hotel.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Romney supporter, also spoke and received a raucous reception from the crowd.
The event was the first of numerous stops in Wisconsin this weekend for the GOP contenders just four days before Tuesday's presidential primary.
After speaking in Waukesha, Romney and Ryan went to nearby Muskego to take part in a town hall meeting, while Santorum traveled 140 miles west to make an appearance at a bowling alley in Platteville, WI. Romney also visited a phone bank for the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker in a a Madison suburb.
By the end of the day, both candidates were scheduled to return to the hotel where they started the day — for the Waukesha County GOP Lincoln Day dinner.
Candidates blast Obama on religion
In Tuesday's primary, 42 delegates are at stake in a winner-take-all primary election that many experts say could be a game-changer for the Republican primary race. Santorum is trailing Romney in and many say a Santorum loss here would pretty much seal the GOP nomination for Romney.
However, at their first event of the day, all three candidates focused on Obama and the November election, telling the captive audience that November's race is a make-or-break election for the country.
Candidates cast a bright spotlight on religious freedom and liberty during the event, which opened with songs praising the Lord, and ended with a prayer to vote Obama out office.
For the most part, the candidates avoided exchanging barbs among each other, and instead placed the target on the Obama administration, which they blamed for attacking American principles.
“We are endowed by our creator with our rights. Not a king. Above all those rights would be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Romney said. “Those rights are under attack by this administration and that’s why we need to replace this administration.”
Romney said Obama’s policies are taking power from individuals to chart their own path toward prosperity, and instead citizens are being encouraged to rely upon the government to cope in a difficult economic environment. Romney claimed that more than 30 percent of the U.S. economy is sunk into the government, and if Obama’s health care law isn’t repealed that could swell to 50 percent.
He added that the president’s health care law assails religious freedoms by requiring private employers to provide products and services that violate deeply held religious beliefs.
“It is time for economic freedom, not a government-dominated society,” Romney said. “I will restore and protect religious freedom. We are one nation under God and that must be maintained.”
Santorum on the offensive
Santorum also emphasized the incredibly important obligation of any Republican candidate to repeal Obama’s health care law if elected. He said it is a central issue in his campaign. While much of Santorum's speech focused on Obama, he also went on the offensive against his fellow Republican from Massachusetts without actually saying Romney's name.
As he has done on the campaign trail, Santorum accused Romney of providing the blueprint for “Obamacare,” which he said is evidenced by health care reforms in Massachusetts.
“We have one person who can make that case to repeal Obamacare, and one person who will not,” Santorum said. “He (Romney) is uniquely disqualified.”
Santorum said the path to revitalizing the country is through the family. He cited the government assistance benefits given single mothers as charted by state Sen. Glenn Grothman as evidence that the concept of family in America is eroding. He said if elected, he would strip funding from Planned Parenthood.
“We’ve destroyed the opportunity for marriage. Government is doing things they think are helpful but aren’t,” Santorum said.
The last chance?
Political experts have said that the final nail in the coffin for Santorum’s bid as the Republican presidential candidate could be . In February, Santorum held a 16-point advantage in two statewide polls. However, four polls released this week show Romney with a solid edge.
“Some are saying it would take an act of God for Rick Santorum to win the Republican nomination” Santorum told the crowd. “I don’t know about you, but I believe in an act of God.”
However, Ryan, who introduced Romney, said it was time for Republicans focus on the November election.
“I think this primary has been healthy. But I think it comes to a point where this primary can become counterproductive,” he said. “The longer this continues the less focused we are on taking on Obama.”
A critical election ahead
All three candidates didn’t mince words when it came to describing the significance of the November election. They claimed the country is at a tipping point, and the upcoming election could have lasting impact for generations to come.
“This is the most important election of your lifetime. The re-election of Barack Obama would be disastrous for this country,” Gingrich said. “This is a historic cultural fight for the very survival of the American way of life.”
Gingrich said the Supreme Court has taken too much power from Americans, and is attempting to define the values of the country. He said Obama is stripping religious values from the country while at the same time taking an apologetic tone toward Muslim nations.
If elected, Gingirch vowed to remove all of Obama’s “czars” from the White House, and focus on a foreign policy that protects American interests. He said tapping domestic energy sources would lower fuel costs, decrease dependence on foreign aid, and could help eliminate the country’s debt.
“If you want to take on radical Islam you need an energy policy to become self-sustaining and never bow to a Saudi King again,” Gingrich said.
The significance of the November election wasn’t lost on Ryan either. He first reaffirmed his support for Romney, and then claimed the country is at a crossroads.
“Our country is on the wrong track. America is going in the wrong direction if we stay on this path of debt, doubt and decline,” Ryan said. “This election will put in place a trajectory that will last a generation. It will be difficult to reverse.”
Ryan said that rather than working to rebuild the American idea, Obama has worked to divide the country in order to distract.
“He is committed to his ideology. He is committed to moving from the American idea,” Ryan said. “We can do this, we can turn this around. People know in their guts what’s at stake.”
Candidates hit the trail in Badger State
After taking part in the Waukesha event, Romney and Paul headed to the InPro Corp. in Muskego, .
Again, Romney used the forum to attack Obama and his policies.
"People are wondering about our future," he said. "You look at our president...he's out of ideas, out of excuses, and in November, he'll be out of office."
Romney added: "Obama broke a lot of promises, including bringing unity. We need a leader who will call on the greatness of America to make us a world leader."
In Wauwatosa, Santorum’s wife, Karen, spoke just after noon to the Wisconsin Conservative Leadership Conference after a rousing introduction by conservative columnist and FOX News contributor Sandy Rios.
Rios warmed up the crowd with a passionate testimonial to Rick Santorum’s firmness of character — and a scathing attack on Washington Beltway Republicans promoting “pretend conservative” Mitt Romney as the “inevitable” candidate.
Karen Santorum about her husband as a devoted father of seven, and spoke of her extreme reluctance to see him run for president.
That changed she said, when “Obamacare” came into being and she, as a former neonatal nurse, decided that her husband should lead the fight to overturn it, with her “100 percent behind him.”
GOP Lincoln/Reagan Dinner
Santorum and Romney were back at the Country Springs Hotel Saturday night as they were speaking before the Republican Party of Waukesha County’s Lincoln/Reagan dinner. Hundreds of people who couldn’t resist groaning anytime President Barack Obama’s name was mentioned were energized as notable Republican political figures Congressman Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker spoke during the event.
Both Santorum and Romney spoke about why they feel Obama needs to be removed from office. Romney criticized the president’s stimulus plan as he called for an end to a “government-centered society.”
“The stimulus protected government and not the American people,” Romney said. “… His stimulus failed the American people.”
Romney’s verbal attacks on the president only energized the conservative crowd as he called Obama “disconnected.”
“His economic strategy has been a bust, and that is one of the reasons why I am convinced that the American people are going to turn him out of office in 2012,” Romney said. “The astonishing thing is, by the way, is he thinks he has done a good job.”
Santorum again touted his conservative approach to politics, calling for fundamental change in government. The president, Santorum said, “describes an America foreign to my ears.”
“Our constitution was founded on the constitution of ‘We the people’ … that we were the people in charge,” Santorum said. “Not like our founders came from where they were subjects of the crown. No, this is a different country. One that the rights didn’t come from the king. Our rights came, as our declaration declared, from our creator. It made us different. It made or relationship different with the government different from any country in the world, and as a result, we transformed the world.”
Denise Konkol, reporting from Muskego, Sarah Millard, reporting from Waukesha, and Jim Price, reporting from Wauwatosa, contributed to this story.