SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's administration has "fought against religion" and sought to substitute a "secular" agenda for one grounded in faith.
Obama's campaign seized on the characterization, calling Romney's comments "disgraceful."
Romney rarely ventures into social issues in his campaign speeches but was asked about how he would protect religious liberty during a town hall-style meeting one week before the Michigan primary.
"Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda — they have fought against religion," he said.
The Obama campaign linked Romney's remarks to recent comments by rival Rick Santorum, who has referred to Obama holding a "phony theology" only to say later that he wasn't attacking Obama's faith but the president's environmental views.
"These ugly and misleading attacks have no place in the campaign and they provide a very clear contrast with what President Obama is talking about: how to restore economic security for the middle class and create jobs," said Lis Smith, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.
Romney implicitly invoked his own Mormon faith at the town hall Tuesday, also rare for the former Massachusetts governor. He said he cares about the issue because he is "someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance."
He also took questions on gay marriage, Supreme Court appointments and abortion — and when asked about whom he might select as his vice presidential running mate, he listed "pro-life" as the first credential he would look for.
Romney faces an unexpectedly difficult fight in Michigan, his native state and a place where his advisers had long assumed he could do well. He's facing a tough challenge from Santorum, who has excited the GOP base with strong anti-abortion rhetoric and appeals to blue-collar voters.
"I care about Michigan. This is personal for me," Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor has stepped his attacks on Santorum in recent days. On Tuesday he argued that tea party voters should prefer him over the former Pennsylvania senator — a renewed focus on the fiscally conservative voters who identify with those groups.
"I think the tea party would find it very interesting that Rick Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling five times without getting compensating reductions in spending," Romney said, echoing the negative campaign ads his campaign and their wealthy allies are airing in the state.
Michigan's GOP primary electorate has grown increasingly conservative in recent years. Tea party voters played a key role in the 2010 midterm elections, and local tea party groups are still active.
When one questioner at Romney's town hall stood and introduced himself as someone from the tea party, the crowd cheered.
Romney's focus on those voters shows in his schedule. He's set to address a coalition of tea party groups Thursday in Milford — a rarity for the former venture capitalist, who normally holds events at local businesses. Romney has scheduled just one or two public events per day in recent weeks.
Organizers said Romney, who accepted the invitation last week, will take questions from the crowd. Wes Nakagiri, the chairman of the tea party group, RetakeOurGov, that is hosting the event, said many of the group's members want to "root for the hometown boy" but that most would "prefer somebody else."
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