The Republican presidential candidates continued their recent emphasis on issues of moral values in a debate on Wednesday, accusing President Obama of limiting religious freedom and decrying the growing number of children born out of wedlock in America.
In a debate in Mesa, Arizona, Romney, who had spent much of the campaign speaking almost exclusively about the economy, accused Obama of threatening religious rights more than any other president in history. The shift to social issues comes after Romney has been unable to win over conservative Christians in key states, as many of them have favored either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, who has surged over the last month.
“I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama,” Romney said.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF THE ARIZONA GOP DEBATE:
Gingrich accused the president of “legalizing infanticide,” referring to Obama’s opposition, as a state senator in Illinois, to legislation that would have defined any aborted fetus that showed signs of life as a “born alive infant.” Obama argued that such measures were intended to limit abortion rights. (See the factcheck.org analysis of this issue for more information.)
Both Romney and Santorum, the two leading GOP candidates, also highlighted the growth in out-of-wedlock births. A New York Times story last week highlighted the fact that more than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage.
“What we’re seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock and the impact on society economically,” said Santorum.
Romney said, “When you have 40 percent of kids being born out of wedlock, and among certain ethnic groups, the vast majority being born out of wedlock, you ask yourself, how are we going to have a society in the future?”
(The majority of black and Hispanic children are born to unmarried parents.)
The debate came less than a week before critical primaries on February 28 in Arizona and Michigan. Most polls show Romney ahead in Arizona, while he and Santorum are effectively tied in Michigan, where Romney had been a heavy favorite.
The emphasis on social issues was not surprising. Republican candidates have continued to attack President Obama over a controversy earlier this month, when his administration at first created a rule that would have required all employers to offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health plans. The administration later created an exception for Catholic charities and other religious employers, but the Republicans have said that it was an example of the president’s intolerance of faith.
Obama administration officials have dismissed this criticism, arguing the president was trying to balance the interests of religious groups with the needs of women to have birth control. And Obama campaign aides have been particularly critical of Santorum, who criticized the president’s “theology” in a campaign appearance on Saturday.
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