CENTENNIAL, Colo.—With a few exceptions in South Carolina, Mitt Romney has generally avoided talking about social issues on the campaign trail. But that changed as the candidate appeared before one of his biggest crowds yet at a local high school here, and accused President Obama of infringing on Americans' religious freedoms.
Speaking on the eve of the Colorado caucuses in a swing district packed with social conservatives, Romney trashed Obama over a federal directive that requires religious institutions like hospitals and universities to provide contraception and the morning after pill—which Romney referred to as an "abortive pill"—to employees insured under their health care plans.
"Think what that does to people in faiths without sharing those views. This is a violation of conscience," Romney told a crowd of more than 2,500 people packed into the gymnasium at Arapahoe High School on Monday night. "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience… We'll either have a government that protects religious diversity and freedom, or we'll have a government that tells us what kind of conscience they think we ought to have."
Romney also brought up a recent Supreme Court decision dictating that religious institutions are free to choose (and dismiss) their own ministers without interference from the government. The Obama administration had thrown its support behind the plaintiff in the case, a Michigan teacher at a Lutheran-run private school who sued, and lost, after she said she was let go from her job for filing a discrimination claim against the school.
"I'm just distressed as I watch our president try and infringe upon our rights. The first amendment of the Constitution provides the right to worship in the way of our own choice," Romney said. "Did you understand that this administration argued before the Supreme Court that a church should not be able to determine who their ministers are but that government should decide who qualifies as a minister?"
As the crowd erupted in boos, Romney added, "And by the way, you know that some of the members of the court are pretty liberal. You know what they decided? They decided 9-0 President Obama was wrong."
The new language on religious rights was tacked on to what is usually the end of the candidate's remarks—and there were indications that the wording was fresh to Romney, as it didn't roll off the tongue as easily as the other elements of his speech that he's been repeating for months and months.
Afterwards, a senior Romney aide, who declined to be named on the record, insisted his boss was just speaking "on the issues of the day." He downplayed the idea that Romney was playing specifically to social conservatives as rival Rick Santorum, who has a strong following among values voters, appears to gain momentum in states like Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota—all of which are set to vote today.
"There are social conservatives everywhere," the Romney aide insisted.
But at the same time, the aide acknowledged that Santorum could do well on Tuesday, especially in Minnesota, where Romney has made little effort to win. "Maybe we should have invested there more, but you can't be greedy in a campaign," the aide said. "You have to play where the delegates are."
Still, Romney's new overtures to values voters hints that his campaign is changing its strategy toward social conservatives, a group that the former Massachusetts governor has not tried to woo as intensely as he did four years ago. The Romney campaign had hoped its message of jobs and improving the economy would trump concerns among evangelicals about his changing positions on abortion and gay marriage over the years.
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