Santorum Courts The Obama-Haters

Romney casts the president as a well-intentioned incompetent. How a town hall meeting in Charleston illustrated the divide in the GOP. posted on

T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The Republican Party’s deep split in how to approach President Obama was on sharp display here, as Rick Santorum and his supporters insisted that Obama represents a force for evil, not just incompetence.

National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson argued yesterday that “the most acute division on the right…is between those Republicans who disagree with Barack Obama, believing his policies to be mistaken, and those who hate Barack Obama, believing him to be wicked.” He continued:

The former group of Republicans would be happy merely to win the presidential election, but the latter are after something more: a national repudiation of President Obama, of his governmental overreach, and of managerial progressivism mainly as practiced by Democrats but also as practiced by Republicans.

As if to prove that point, Santorum sought to contrast his own hard-line view of the president’s performance with Mitt Romney’s more forgiving assessment.

The moment came as Santorum fielded questions from a crowd of 500 conservatives whose anti-Obama fervor appeared to place them firmly in Williamson’s second group. Over the course of the event, and in conversations afterward, attendees accused Obama of working to implement Sharia Law in the U.S., playing puppet to hyper-rich liberal conspirators, and intentionally weakening the economy to make room for socialist rule.

About midway through the event, a woman came to the microphone and told Santorum, “First of all, I want to tell you thank you. You’re the only candidate I’ve heard who tells the truth, and that is that Obama is doing this on purpose. We’ve got to call out what’s happening…”

After running through a litany of grievances that mingled mainstream conservative critiques of Obama with various conspiracy theories involving George Soros, the woman disapprovingly paraphrased a key section of the stump speech Romney has been using for months.

“One politician last week said, ‘Obama’s a good man, he’s just in over his head…’”

Santorum interjected, shaking his head vigorously: “No,” he said. “That’s demeaning to the president. I really mean that. I don’t just say this in any way to be humorous. It’s demeaning to the president to say that he’s over his head…These are things he seriously wants to accomplish. He has a very different view of what makes America a great country. And he has in some ways done a very effective job in getting his legislation passed, and his regulations passed to try to fundamentally change the American government.”

The message: Romney thinks Obama is a nice but misguided president who should be replaced; Santorum sees him as a dangerous radical who must be stopped.

Of course, frontrunner Romney can afford to temper the tough talk as he keeps an eye toward the general election. Santorum, on the other hand, appears to believe the Obama-haters will be a key constituency in achieving a primary upset. But, as the former Senator learned Thursday, navigating the shoals of populist anger can by tricky business politically.

Immediately after complimenting Santorum on properly acknowledging the threat Obama represented, the questioner got to her real point for the night: “I don’t know if people realize this, but the U.N.’s being run by an organization of Islamic cooperation and they are the ones determining refugee status for people coming here. I want a president who will end that.”

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