Shifting focus, Obama campaign targets Santorum on economy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign regularly rips Mitt Romney, long viewed as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, for his economic policies. On Tuesday, it added Romney’s rival Rick Santorum to its list of top targets.

In a sign of the growing seriousness with which the president’s team takes the former senator from Pennsylvania, Obama’s campaign gave equal billing to Santorum in a memo criticizing the two Republican candidates’ tax and deficit-reduction plans.

“Governor Mitt Romney and Senator Rick Santorum claim they will champion spending cuts deep enough to cut taxes and balance the budget,” Obama campaign policy director James Kvaal wrote in the note, which was distributed to reporters.

“In fact, they have both proposed irresponsible and reckless tax plans that would drive up the deficit by trillions of dollars, while their claims to balance the budget through spending cuts are completely unrealistic.”

Santorum has surged ahead of Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, in some national polls of Republican voters. He beat Romney in a string of recent nominating contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.

Santorum and Romney are seeking their party’s nomination to face Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 election.

Though Obama’s campaign has kept its fire directed primarily on Romney, it has started to watch Santorum closely.

The Obama campaign’s Pennsylvania state director said last week in an email that Santorum’s “extreme-right social views are as out of touch as they are memorable,” and asked locals to collect stories that revealed his “true colors.”

Santorum has drawn contrasts between himself and Obama on social issues like contraception, and accused the president’s administration on Monday of implementing healthcare policies that discourage marriage and hurt families.

Rick Santorum speaks during a Tea Party Rally in Columbus, Ohio February 18, 2012. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan

Adding Santorum to a critique of Romney’s economic policies offered a new way for Obama’s campaign to attack the surging conservative.

“As Senator Santorum has risen in the polls, the scrutiny of his policies will follow,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.


Romney and Santorum have some similar proposals on the economy.

Romney would extend income tax cuts for wealthy earners put in place under Republican former President George W. Bush, while eliminating education and child-care tax breaks that benefit lower-income taxpayers. His plan would cut annual tax revenue by $180 billion, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

“Romney repeatedly promises to balance the budget, but his platform not only fails to reach that goal - it would actually increase the deficit and drive up the debt,” Kvaal wrote.

The Romney campaign said Obama had no room to criticize the former governor on deficit reduction.

“This is the president who just proposed the largest tax increase in American history and has given us four straight trillion-dollar budget deficits,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email. “President Obama is in no position to criticize Mitt Romney’s proposals to cut taxes and restore fiscal responsibility,” she said.

Santorum’s tax plan, meanwhile, would dramatically cut tax revenues. His plan calls for collapsing the current six income tax brackets down to two at 28 percent and 10 percent. The plan would keep in place tax breaks for mortgages and healthcare and would boost tax breaks for parents.

“Santorum has not been specific about spending cuts, he has simply called for across-the-board spending cuts of various sorts. But simple arithmetic shows how unrealistic his plan would be,” Harvard University economist Jeffrey Liebman told a conference call with reporters arranged by the Obama campaign.

“So the Santorum budget is definitely operating in fantasyland.”

The Santorum campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

The tax plans outlined by Romney and Santorum have been criticized by some conservatives, too.

Conservatives attack Romney’s plan for maintaining a tax on investment income for households making more than $200,000 a year, while Santorum has been accused of playing favorites through the tax code by offering benefits to manufacturing businesses and families with children.

Additional reporting by Patrick Temple-West and Eric Johnson; Editing by Will Dunham