Romney Sharpens Appeal to Conservatives

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Republican Mitt Romney directly appealed to social conservatives in South Carolina on Thursday, criticizing Democratic rival Barack Obama for supporting age-appropriate sex education for children as young as kindergartners.

“Senator Obama is wrong if he thinks science-based sex education has any place in kindergarten,” Romney told some 150 people at a restaurant in the northern part of the state. “We should be working to clean up the filthy waters our kids are swimming in.”

Obama, campaigning in New Hampshire, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that Romney was only trying to “score cheap political points.” He said he was noting in his comments that he supported laws in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in which local communities and parents can decide how to provide children with information about sexual predators.

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The criticism aimed at Obama was part of a broader effort by the Romney campaign to heighten its presence in the early voting state, which holds its primary Feb. 2.

The leading GOP candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has been dogged by the bad news about his state campaign chairman, Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, who was indicted on federal cocaine distribution charges. Financial woes and staff shake-ups have hit John McCain’s campaign.

Strategists for Romney expect former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to make a play for the state’s conservative vote should he forge ahead with a candidacy in September. Romney is trying to win them over now.

Just this week, Romney’s wife, Ann, participated in a two-day bus tour of South Carolina. The Romney campaign also included South Carolina in the rotation for a new television ad focusing on preventing children from seeing inappropriate material on television and elsewhere. Romney’s ads had been running only in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire and on cable.

June Bond, a Republican from Spartanburg, introduced Ann Romney as her husband’s starter wife and trophy wife “all in one,” a clear reference to his rivals. Giuliani is thrice married; Thompson’s second wife is more than two decades younger.

“South Carolina is important to us, which is evident given our travel there, the town hall meetings and the organizing that is taking place on the ground,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. “We haven’t matched our level of advertising that is taking place in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but the work on building the infrastructure required to compete there is definitely taking place.”

One potential obstacle for Romney are the Christian evangelicals who hold sway in the GOP primary. A number have expressed concerns about backing Romney, who is a Mormon.

As Romney has taken the lead in polling in both Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain finds himself struggling to rebound from his troubled campaign. McCain backers circulated two memos Thursday in which the Arizona senator’s campaign seeks to make the case for a comeback and explain a way forward.

In one, the campaign compares McCain’s woes to those of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and argues: “Ultimately when Ronald Reagan took control of his own campaign, he started to see successes.” The message: McCain is doing the same.

The other, a seven-page “Road to Victory 2008” document, lays out a path to the nomination through the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Romney’s criticism of Obama followed similar comments the evening before, when he told a GOP fundraising dinner in Colorado Springs, Colo.: “How much sex education is age appropriate for a 5-year-old? In my mind, zero is the right number.

Romney’s campaign later released a statement touting himself and criticizing Obama. The headline on the statement: “A record of promoting abstinence, not sex education for kindergartners.”

While governor of Massachusetts, Romney funded abstinence education over family planning and abortion services. But in 2002, he also checked “yes” in a Planned Parenthood questionnaire that asked: “Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?”

Earlier this week, Obama told a Planned Parenthood forum that he considers sex education for kindergartners appropriate if it is geared to their age level.

Obama also recalled being lambasted for his position during his 2004 Senate race against GOP opponent Alan Keyes. Obama said then _ and repeated to the Planned Parenthood supporters _ that the type of health education he supports is, for example, warning young children about inappropriate touching.

He has also said that if kindergartners ask teachers questions like where babies come from they should be given accurate information, not told a story about storks.

On Thursday, Obama told the AP that politicians shouldn’t engage in hypocrisy over the issue.

“We have to deal with a coarsening of the culture and the over-sexualization of our young people,” Obama said. “Of course, part of the coarsening of that culture is when politicians try to demagogue issues to score cheap political points.”

He added: “What we shouldn’t do is to try to play a political football with these issues and express them in ways that are honest and truthful. … Certainly, what we shouldn’t do is engage in hypocrisy.”

Before his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama was a state senator and chairman of a committee that approved legislation that would have altered Illinois’ sex education standards to include instruction in any grade from kindergarten through 12th, rather than grades 6-12.

Deleted from the 2003 bill was language calling for sex education courses to honor “monogamous heterosexual marriage” and would have softened the state’s emphasis on abstinence, while adding that any course materials should be “age and developmentally appropriate” and based on the latest scientific studies.

The full Senate never voted on the measure, and it ultimately died.

Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Boston, Liz Sidoti in Washington and Philip Elliott in Sunapee, N.H., contributed to this report.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)