TOPEKA, Kan. — Hoping to tap into deep distrust of Washington, Republican Rick Santorum suggested Friday that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney share a top priority: to take away Americans' money and freedom so they can tell them how to live.
A day before Kansas Republicans weigh in on the party's presidential contest, Santorum looked to shore up support in a this Midwestern state that seemed ready to give the former Pennsylvania senator yet another win and further challenge Romney's front-runner status. With sharp rhetoric, Santorum likened Romney to Obama and cast both as unacceptable for conservatives.
"We already have one president who doesn't tell the truth to the American people. We don't need another," Santorum said to cheers. "Gov. Romney reinvents himself for whatever the political occasion calls for."
Santorum has hammered Romney for a health care overhaul he signed into law as Massachusetts governor. Santorum's advisers see the issue as Romney's biggest weakness among conservatives who make up the bulk of the Republican Party's nominating base but have split their votes between Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to this point.
"The worst offender is Gov. Romney. He put the template for Obamacare in place in Massachusetts," Santorum said.
Massachusetts requires citizens to buy health insurance. That mandate is central to Democrats' national plan, and Santorum called it unconstitutional.
"Doesn't matter. He's going to do it anyway," Santorum sniped of the man he hopes to face in November's general election.
Santorum also tried to muscle Gingrich out of the race in the coming weeks, if not days. Santorum's advisers anticipate Gingrich's conservative supporters would turn to Santorum and perhaps derail a coalition that would derail Romney's better organized, better funded political organization.
"We have an opportunity to narrow this race down so we can go one-on-one with Gov. Romney," Santorum told supporters.
Even before he arrived in a state his rivals largely overlooked, Santorum signaled strength here.
"Since Romney and Gingrich have decided not to campaign in Kansas, we feel pretty confident that we're going to do well," Santorum told reporters before leaving Alabama, which has its contest on Tuesday.
Despite his anti-Washington message, Santorum faced grumbling from tea party activists for skipping their big rally in the state's largest city. They spent $25,000 to rent the Century II arena in downtown Wichita and expected 1,000 to 3,000 people to attend.
"It seems like it is counterproductive to show up for an event that is going to have 300 people in an airplane hangar instead (of) 3,000 people in a nice setting where you can actually contact and really maybe sway somebody," said Craig Gabel, the president of Kansas For Liberty, which organized the Wichita event.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was the only presidential candidate participating in the tea party event.
Looking ahead, Santorum said the coming days could force Gingrich from the race. Gingrich aides have said that they must win in Mississippi and Alabama to justify staying in the race.
"We feel very confident that we can win Kansas on Saturday and come into Alabama and Mississippi and this race should come down to two people," Santorum told reporters.
Santorum, meanwhile, hoped to rally conservatives to his side by railing against Washington and Obama.
"He wants to centralize power because the elites know better. ... That's this president in a nutshell. Unfortunately, that's the other two Republican candidates in this race," Santorum said.
The former Pennsylvania senator also pitched himself as the only principled candidate in the race.
"This election is about trust. Who do you trust?" Santorum said. "When the political climate changed, I guess Gov. Romney's climate changed, too. You see, I don't change with the climate."
Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita contributed to this report.