The Republican presidential contenders seized Monday’s Supreme Court hearing as a ready-made opportunity to bash President Obama — and each other.
Rick Santorum, who is struggling to keep momentum in his campaign, made the highest-profile play to capitalize on the first day of arguments, traveling to Washington to appear on the steps of the high court.
There he railed against front-runner Mitt Romney and the healthcare law Romney signed as Massachusetts governor, saying it was a disaster for that state and left Romney unfit to fight Obama’s laws.
“The worst person to make that case is Mitt Romney, and that’s why I say we’re here today and he’s not,” Santorum said.
Santorum’s remarks in front of the court were partially drowned out by pro-Obama supporters who shouted over the former Pennsylvania senator.
All four of the remaining GOP presidential candidates oppose Obama’s healthcare reform law and support its repeal.
But the issue is not so simple for Romney, who enacted a similar law in Massachusetts. That law also included an individual mandate requiring that people buy insurance — the key constitutional issue now facing the court.
“From Romney’s perspective, it gives him a platform to start attempting to move any type of narrative that has been built about him on RomneyCare away from the president’s position,” said GOP pollster Chris Perkins, who is unaffiliated in the race. “However, in the same light, it gives Gingrich and Santorum a platform to re-engage the attacks on Mitt Romney.”
With more and more of the Republican establishment coalescing behind Romney as the inevitable nominee, Santorum has ratcheted up his rhetoric against Romney, hoping to instill concerns among the GOP that Romney won’t provide enough of a contrast against Obama in a general election.
“Gov. Romney’s uniquely disqualified to make the case,” Santorum said later on CNN. “He wrote the blueprint for ObamaCare.”
As Santorum addressed an agitated crowd of protesters outside the court, Romney was in California, where he held campaign events Monday in San Diego and Redwood City. But he dismissed Santorum’s attacks as the desperate thrashes of a campaign in its death throes.
“I’m not going to worry too much about what Rick is saying these days,” Romney told CNN. “When you fall further and further behind, you get a little bit more animated.”
Romney vowed, if elected, to repeal Obama’s healthcare law and said he would “stop it in its tracks on day one.” He said that he believed the law was unconstitutional and that the court would reach a similar conclusion, warning of what could happen if Obama’s power went unchecked.
“Ultimately, I believe he’s going to be insisting on telling people what kind of treatment they must receive,” he said.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who was campaigning in Delaware on Monday, was forced to walk a fine line on the issue. Gingrich had previously supported the individual mandate that Republicans are now blasting, but left himself an out by proposing that people be allowed to post a bond rather than purchase health insurance.
“There is no such opt-out in ObamaCare,” he said. “It is an effort to coerce every single American.”
Ron Paul kept a lower profile Monday and held no official campaign events, but told Bloomberg News that he suspected the court would rule the law unconstitutional.
Republicans are divided about how the court’s ruling will play politically. If the court rules that the law is unconstitutional, it would be a win for the GOP ideologically, but would undercut the urgency of their case for why Obama must not be reelected. It could also have the effect of stirring up Obama’s base and rallying Democrats to his side.
A ruling that upholds Obama’s reforms could have a similar effect for Republicans, helping them make the case that the election of a Republican president is the last possible opportunity to prevent the law from being implemented fully. But it would also lend the imprimatur of the nation’s highest court to Obama’s signature achievement.
Santorum told CNN on Monday that if the court were to side with Obama, it would only strengthen his case that Obama must be defeated — and that he’s the best candidate to do it.
“Otherwise, this law is going to be implemented,” he said. “This is a loser on every single front.”
— Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.