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GOP rivals are minding their mouths

By Maeve Reston and Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times –

SEATTLE — In the last 10 days, voters learned that Mitt Romney’s wife drives two Cadillacs, and that while Romney does not follow NASCAR that closely, he is “great friends” with some team owners.

They have learned that John F. Kennedy’s landmark 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made Rick Santorum want to vomit, and that Santorum thinks President Barack Obama is a “snob” for urging people to continue their education after high school.

For a lot of voters — and many critics — such remarks have reinforced stereotypes about the candidates: That Romney, a multimillionaire, is out of touch with average Americans, and Santorum, a staunch social conservative, is a throwback to the mores of an earlier time.

Now, as Super Tuesday’s crucial contests loom next week, both candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have struggled to recover from those and other self-inflicted wounds.

Santorum, buoyant from his close second-place finish in Michigan, is facing a do-or-die moment in Ohio, where he is leading in the most recent polls. Romney is hoping, once again, to finish off his competitors and emerge from Super Tuesday as the inevitable nominee.

(Newt Gingrich is pinning his hopes on his home state of Georgia, which he has said he must win Tuesday to remain a viable candidate. Ron Paul has vowed to stay in the race to the end.)

“I wish I had that particular line back,” Santorum told radio host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday, the day of the Michigan primary, when she gently rebuked the former senator from Pennsylvania for his remark about Kennedy’s speech. He told CNN on Friday that he regretted using the word “snob.” “It was a strong term — probably not the smartest thing,” he said. “I got a little passionate there and I used a harsher word than I normally would.”

In his speech Tuesday night in Michigan, Santorum seemed to send a message tailored to rebut accusations that he is insensitive to women. He dwelled on the careers of his wife, a former nurse and attorney, and his mother, “a professional who actually made more money than her husband.”

Friday on CNN, he mildly criticized radio host Rush Limbaugh as “absurd” for using the word “slut” to describe a law student who testified before Congress about the need for contraceptive coverage in insurance plans.

Also Tuesday, a reflective Romney told reporters, “I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across.”

When asked if he understood how some of his remarks rubbed voters the wrong way, the former Massachusetts governor was terse: “Yes.”

His wife, Ann, a smoother campaigner, also tacitly acknowledged his missteps.

“Maybe I should do all the talking and let him just stand here and watch me,” she said with a laugh as she introduced him last Saturday in Troy, Mich. At a Republican luncheon the next day, in a comment reported by the National Review Online, she said she was so angry at reporters she could “strangle them.”

Campaign aides have accused reporters of blowing Romney’s NASCAR remark out of proportion.

On Wednesday, Romney got himself into trouble again when he told an interviewer that he did not support a Senate amendment that would allow employers to deny certain kinds of health coverage for moral reasons. Hours later, he backtracked, saying he had misunderstood the question and “of course” supported the Blunt amendment.

“Sometimes the press gets fixated on controversies and foibles and things like that and magnify them a little more,” said California GOP strategist Don Sipple. “But being inarticulate or saying goofy things can kind of get you in the end. Remember how Gerald Ford came across as a bumbler? That stuff has a cumulative effect.”

(Romney alluded to Santorum’s penchant for harsh remarks in a conversation with reporters Tuesday in Novi, Mich.: “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he said. “You know I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”

On Friday, in Chillicothe, Ohio, Santorum indirectly responded: “I know sometimes I can get a little wound up. You see, I don’t often use a teleprompter. The words that come out of my mouth are my own. They are not written by some poll-tested speech writer.”)

On Tuesday, their fates will be left to Republican voters in nearly a dozen states, many of whom have yet to settle on a candidate.

Lynn Prazak, a 63-year-old plumber who heard Romney speak in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday, said the candidate’s comments about NASCAR and Cadillacs had confirmed her suspicions about his core.

“Romney’s such a corporate person,” Prazak said. “The attitude just seems above us.” Santorum, whom she supports, is “more of people person.”

But Gerald Ustanko, a retired insurance agent, walked out on a recent Santorum event because he didn’t want to hear any more talk about social issues. “I just turned off,” said Ustanko, who is supporting Romney. “We can overkill on that. Fifty percent of the population doesn’t want to hear about that stuff.”

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