PHOENIX — A surging Rick Santorum is making increasingly harsh remarks about President Barack Obama, questioning not just the president's competence but his motives and even his Christian values.
Mitt Romney also is sharpening his anti-Obama rhetoric. He said Tuesday the president governs with "a secular agenda" that hurts religious freedom. In general, however, the former Massachusetts governor has not seriously challenged Obama's motives, often saying the president is decent but inept.
But Santorum and Newt Gingrich have heightened their claims that Obama's intentions are not always benign, ahead of Wednesday's televised GOP presidential debate and next week's primaries in Michigan and Arizona.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who suddenly is threatening Romney in his native state of Michigan, says Obama cares only about power, not the "interests of people." He says "Obamacare," the health care overhaul Obama enacted, includes a "hidden message" about the president's disregard for impaired fetuses, which might be aborted.
Santorum even seemed to compare Obama to Adolf Hitler, although he denies trying to do so.
Santorum's remarks have gotten only scattered attention because he weaves them into long, sometimes rambling speeches. Romney's team is monitoring Santorum's comments, privately suggesting they could hurt him in a general election.
But it's difficult for Romney to openly criticize Santorum on these points because Romney already has trouble appealing to the party's socially conservative base. Santorum's remarks could come up in Wednesday's debate in Mesa, Ariz., sponsored by CNN.
Gingrich, campaigning Monday in Oklahoma, called Obama "the most dangerous president in modern American history." Gingrich said the administration's "willful dishonesty" about alleged terrorists' motives threatens the country.
Gingrich has long been known for over-the-top rhetoric, and Santorum's rapid rise in the polls has drawn much of the campaign's focus away from the former House speaker.
Some of Santorum's remarks echo attacks on Obama during the 2008 presidential race, when critics portrayed him as a mysterious politician with hidden motives and questionable allegiance to the United States. More recent examples include:
—Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, Santorum criticized Obama for requiring health insurance plans to cover prenatal testing. He said such tests lead to "more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That too is part of Obamacare, another hidden message as to what President Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country."
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said "prenatal screenings are essential to promote the health of both the mother and baby and to ensure safe deliveries."
—On Monday in Steubenville, Ohio, Santorum said Obama "talks about how he's going to help manufacturing, after he systematically destroyed it. You pick any area. Financial services. One after another, where he has this ideology of government-centralized control. Not worried about the interests of people. He's worried about the interest of power so he can dictate to people what he believes is best."
Independent analysts say U.S. manufacturing was in steep decline before Obama took office in 2009. Many economists credit Obama's stimulus packages with keeping the job losses from being considerably worse.
—At the same Ohio event, Santorum said Obama and his fellow Democrats have raised unfounded fears about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which pressurized fluids are pumped into the ground to extract natural gas. Santorum said Obama wants to unfairly regulate fracking "as if this is some new technology out there that we don't know anything about, and we have to be worried about." Santorum said the administration tells Americans, "Ooh, we've got to be scared, we've got to be scared of this technology that's producing the cheapest natural gas and oil....Why? So we can get your dollars, turn it to politicians who can win elections so they can control your lives."
—Also in Steubenville, Santorum said Obama encourages a trend in which the church, religious-affiliated colleges and civic institutions grow weaker while government grows stronger.
"We all know that one of the ways that government has been able to accumulate power is to do so by weakening the institutions that people rely upon," he said. "When they can rely upon them, these stable, mediating institutions in our culture, they don't need government."
"That's why it's not surprising to see the president's assault on, first, charities," Santorum said. "You recall one of his first tax proposals was to limit charitable deductions — charitable deductions to those mediating institutions," which include colleges, churches and civic organizations.
—Speaking Sunday at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga., Santorum said people who shrug off troubling signs about Obama are like those Americans who ignored the growing fascist menace in Europe before World War II. "Your country needs you. It's not as clear a challenge," Santorum said. "Obviously, World War II was pretty obvious. At some point, they knew. But remember, the Greatest Generation, for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness, where our closest ally, Britain, was being bombed and leveled, while Japan was spreading its cancer all throughout Southeast Asia. America sat from 1940, when France fell, to December of '41, and did almost nothing.
"Why? Because we're a hopeful people. We think, 'Well, you know, he'll get better. You know, he's a nice guy. I mean, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This will be OK.' Oh yeah, maybe he's not the best guy, and after a while, you found out things about this guy over in Europe, and he's not so good of a guy after all."
Asked by a reporter Monday if he was comparing Obama to Hitler, Santorum said "No, of course not."
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined Tuesday to get drawn into a point-by-point rebuttal of Santorum's comments. He said Obama "is focused on his job as president, getting this country moving in the right direction, ensuring that the recovery, which is under way, continues forward."
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Michigan and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.