Since the campaign began, President Obama’s reelection team has directed virtually all of its attention toward Mitt Romney. But over the weekend, Rick Santorum’s explosive comments about the President’s “theology” got the attention of his top campaign advisers. For the first time, Obama’s campaign is pushing back on Santorum’s statements, and the surging GOP candidate is struggling to explain them.
Since Santorum told a crowd at the Ohio Christian Alliance on Saturday that President Obama’s agenda was a “phony ideology” not “based on the Bible,” he has come up with two different explanations of what he meant. After the event, Santorum explained to reporters that his comments were a reference to secular ideas being imposed on the Church. While he didn’t mention contraception, he did bring up the issue of religious freedom, which Republicans insist the new contraception rule violates and has become the latest conservative rallying cry over the past few weeks.
“The president has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before,” Santorum said. “If he doesn’t want to call his imposition of his values a theology that’s fine, but it is an imposition of his values over a church who has very clear theological reasons for opposing what the Obama administration is forcing on them.”
On Sunday, however, Santorum shifted his response when CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked him what his comments meant. This time, Santorum made it about “radical environmentalists’: “this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal… I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” By extension, he implied, so does Obama.
But the neither explanation assuaged the Obama campaign. “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 everyday on creating jobs and restoring economic security for the middle class,” said a campaign spokesman Saturday.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s top campaign adviser, also weighed in on Sunday. On ABC’s This Week, Gibbs said the remarks were “well over the line” and are indicative of a larger trend on the other side of the aisle: “I think this GOP primary is, in many cases, Jake, has been a race to the bottom. We have seen nastiness, divisiveness, ugliness, distortions of opponents’ records, of the president’s records.”
The Obama campaign is taking note of the rising candidate, but their rebukes are aimed not just at Santorum. Instead, they paint his comments into a larger picture of the GOP primary as negative and beyond the mainstream.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.