MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Intensifying debate over conservative social values – and Republican icon Rush Limbaugh – overshadowed the nation’s economic concerns Sunday as the Republican presidential campaign hurtled toward Super Tuesday contests that could re-shape the nomination battle and shift the direction of the Grand Old Party.
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum distanced themselves from Limbaugh, who boasts a huge conservative following and recently apologized for calling a Georgetown University law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” on his nationally syndicated radio program. The woman testified at a congressional hearing in favor of an Obama administration mandate that employee health plans include free contraceptive coverage. While religious institutions are exempt, their affiliates, such as hospitals and universities, were at first included in the requirement. Under harsh criticism from conservatives, President Barack Obama later said the affiliates could opt out, but insurers must pay for the coverage.
The GOP framed the issue as one of religious liberty. But Obama’s chief political strategist suggested the Limbaugh’s reaction – and Republicans’ slow repudiation of his comments – would benefit Democrats in the general election this fall.
“I think what Rush Limbaugh said about that young woman was not only vile and degrading to her, but to women across the country,” David Axelrod said Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week.”
While the contraception debate raged on national television, Newt Gingrich predicted a strong performance Tuesday would resurrect his fading candidacy. Romney and Santorum spent Sunday racing across Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio, four of the ten states to host elections on Super Tuesday, the biggest single voting day of the 2012 cycle.
Romney picked up endorsements from two influential Republican lawmakers: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, widely regarded as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate.
Campaigning in Alaska, Ron Paul conceded he’s a long shot.
“Do I believe I can win? Yes. Do I believe the chances are slim? Yes, I do,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Super Tuesday’s defining contest may be Ohio, where Santorum and Romney have devoted tremendous time and resources in recent weeks. Santorum’s performance there could well define his fate – and Romney’s – in the roller-coaster race going forward.
“This is a game of survival,” Santorum said while campaigning Sunday in Memphis, Tenn.
Preparing for the worst, Romney’s campaign began preparing for a possible loss in Ohio, where polls show the former Massachusetts governor locked in a dead heat with Santorum, a former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think any state is a must-win,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “I think the only must-do on a candidate’s checklist is getting 1,144 delegates.”