Crowd goes wild for Santorum at CPAC

Rick Santorum gave one of the strongest speeches of his presidential campaign on Friday, repeatedly bringing a crowd of influential conservatives to its feet.

In his remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Santorum drew sharp contrasts between himself and both President Obama and Mitt Romney, although he didn't mention the former Massachusetts governor by name.

But he did attack Obama for his controversial mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions to cover contraception — a move that infuriated conservatives.

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“Government will own you because you will have to pay tribute to Washington in order to get the care you need for your children,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “The major reason I’m in this race is because I believe ObamaCare is a game-changer for America.

“We've seen the president of the United States not only tell you what insurance coverage you should have, how much you’re going to pay, how much you’re going to be fined if you don’t, but now he's telling the Catholic Church that they are forced to pay for things that are against their basic tenets and teachings, against their First Amendment right,” he said, framing the issue not just as a religious one but one of personal freedom.

“This is the kind of coercion that we expect,” Santorum added. “It’s not about contraception. It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about government coercion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop!”


The audience roared to its feet — the standing ovation lasted a full 30 seconds.

The large banquet hall was at maximum capacity. Hundreds of people were stuck outside, leading to protestations as the crowd in the halls demanded to be let in to hear Santorum. Police had to tightly control the crowd in order to keep calm, blocking exits and forcing people out of doorframes as nervous volunteers looked on.

Santorum's appearance came three days after he won three states in the GOP nominating contest and turned the Republican primary on its head. In an indication they are worried, while Santorum was speaking the Romney campaign blasted out a letter written by conservative leaders praising Romney.

Foster Friess, the billionaire who is bankrolling the super-PAC backing Santorum, introduced the candidate. While Santorum never mentioned Romney by name, Friess had no problem attacking him.

“A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Hi, Mitt,’ ” he joked in his introduction. The line drew hearty laughs and applause with only scattered boos, indicating the former Massachusetts governor will likely have a hard sell with the crowd when he speaks later on Friday.

Santorum attacked his GOP rival without saying his name, warning of a “hollow victory in November” if Republicans choose a centrist.

“It's going to take ideas, vision, contrast, a record of accomplishment that can go up against the failed policies of Barack Obama. That's the winner,” he said to strong applause. “Well, let’s just take a look at that in the Republican field. Who has the boldest contrast? Who has the record they can run on? Who has the bold plans to turn this economy around and to support the very institutions of our country, to provide the foundation of our country, faith and family? Who has that strong track record and that contrast?”

Santorum was interrupted by shouts of “It’s you” from numerous people in the crowd, leading him to joke that: “I guess I can quit now since you’re all convinced of it." He then launched into an attack of the healthcare plan Romney signed as Massachusetts governor, saying Romney would “simply give that issue away in the fall."

He also attacked Romney for his past support of climate change legislation and supporting the Wall Street bailout.

He closed by saying that those in the crowd are “blessed to live in a time that America needs you,” and asked them to “choose the candidate that you believe is the right person to lead this country, not just to victory but to the changes that are necessary for that victory to be won, so that you can say 'I’ve done my duty, I've kept my honor.' ”

The crowd rose as one to its feet.