Romney, gaining in Tennessee, keeps his aim on the economy

Posted: March 04, 2012

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Jesus Christ was referenced in the opening invocation. Lou Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." warmed up the crowd. And Mitt Romney quoted the "endowed by our Creator" line from the Declaration of Independence.

But beyond that, at a rally Sunday night here in the heart of the Bible Belt - where folks readily remind you that you're in the heart of the Bible Belt - God wasn't on center stage.

Instead, the Republican presidential front-runner used a brief stop in Tennessee, one of 10 states with presidential primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday, to pay homage to the almighty dollar.

Romney spoke of the grandness of entrepreneurship, deregulation, spending cuts and low taxes, citing both the need for a gas pipeline from Canada and the inspiration he got from meeting a woman who figured out how to package and sell baby carrots.

He never mentioned his primary opponents - not even Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and staunch religious conservative. Santorum earlier had a double-digit lead in the polls in Tennessee, but a Rasmussen Reports survey released Sunday showed Romney within striking distance there.

Romney didn't gloat. He acted as the presumptive nominee, as if he had already won Tennessee and even more delegate-rich Ohio, where polls show him and Santorum in a virtual tie. And he hammered President Obama, who he said "doesn't understand how the free-enterprise system works" nor understand "what makes America such a successful nation."

The sign-waving crowd of several hundred packed into the West Hills Elementary School gymnasium roared with approval.

"I want to restore to America the values and principles that made us the greatest nation in the history of the Earth," the former Massachusetts governor said.

While Santorum took that sentiment a step beyond during a speech Saturday in Ohio, speaking of America's "Judeo-Christian ethic," Romney did not go there. And the crowd didn't seem to mind.

Supporters in attendance said they are devout Christians who don't mind that Romney is a Mormon. "I've been a Baptist all my life, and it doesn't bother me," said Lamar Orr, 76.

Orr said he was far more concerned with righting the economy, and believes that only Romney has the government experience and business acumen to do that.

But outside this circle of Romney supporters, there was skepticism.

"My concern is that someone otherwise bright as he is would be a Mormon," Mike Allen, 54, said after leaving services earlier Sunday at First Baptist Concord, a megachurch in nearby Farragut. "It's a cult."

Allen said he would vote for Santorum, who "just seems the lesser of several evils."

For Dean and Eva Rudder, also parishioners at the church, Romney's Mormonism is not a problem. When Dean Rudder was in the service, the couple lived in military housing near Mormons who they said were nice people and good neighbors.

They are supporting Romney, who "would be the strongest one we can get against Obama," Eva Rudder said.

"A lot of people want him back in because they think it's going to get them more checks," she said of the president.

Entitlement cuts. Balanced budgets. Lowering the debt. Romney supporters invariably rank the economy as their top priority, far ahead of social issues.

"I think he'll balance the budget, and if he balances the budget, a lot else will fall into place," said Orr's friend Leon Potgieter, 69, a retired academic veterinarian. "We think he has a track record to prove he can do that."

After Mitt's wife, Ann, warmed up the crowd Sunday, a tieless Mitt, speaking in a theater-in-the-round setup, used a now-familiar approach to folksiness: He recited lyrics of an old song. This time, it was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," which begins: "Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee."

Romney earlier Sunday picked up the endorsement of two conservative lawmakers, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.).

Elsewhere, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is banking on winning Georgia, the state he once represented, on Tuesday to stay relevant in the race, kept up his strategy of using media appearances to make up for his relatively minimal resources for travel, organization and advertising.

On NBC's Meet the Press, he referenced the several changes in perceived front-runners during the campaign and declared, "I think we're coming back for a third time."

Santorum, speaking on Fox News Sunday, bemoaned how hard-line conservatives could dominate the race if support didn't continue to be split between him and Gingrich.

On Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City, where he spoke on the steps of the state Capitol, Santorum drew about 200 supporters, but also about 25 activists from Occupy Oklahoma, who drowned him out with shouts such as, "Get your hate out of my state."

Both Santorum and Romney were returning to Ohio on Monday. Texas Rep. Ron Paul will campaign in Idaho, while Gingrich was following both Romney and Santorum in planning stops in Tennessee.

If Romney does well Tuesday in both this socially conservative state and blue-collar Ohio, his lead could well become difficult for his challengers to overcome.

Romney, who also ran for president in 2008, indicated during his Knoxville rally that although "running for president of the United States is not what I planned," he had to run because the country had to be saved from Obama.

"This president's out of ideas, he's out of excuses, and in 2012, we're going to make sure he's out of office," Romney said.

He promised to lower the marginal tax rate by 20 percent while pursuing all kinds of domestic energy production. He vowed to increase military spending.

And, he said, he would restore America's "values."

"Our DNA is like the rest of the human beings on the planet. It's our values that make us different," he said.

"This is our time for choosing whether we believe those values or not."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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