Rick Santorum brings national spotlight to Hixson with campaign speech at Abba's House

Rick Santorum brings national spotlight to Hixson with campaign speech at Abba's House

February 26th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in News

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks Saturday at Abba's House in Hixson at a "Liberty Forum" sponsored by the Chattanooga Tea Party.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

If you saw Rick Santorum on CNN or Fox News on Saturday, the backdrop likely was Abba's House in Hixson, where the latest Republican presidential front-runner temporarily thrust Chattanooga into the national political spotlight.

Wearing a blue blazer, open-collared shirt and jeans at the Southern Baptist megachurch, Santorum headlined the Chattanooga Tea Party's "Liberty Forum," calling President Barack Obama a "snob" for saying every American child should go to college and promoting his own version of family values.

"True happiness comes from doing God's will," the Roman Catholic former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said. "It comes not from doing what you want to do, but doing what you ought to do."

A 34-second round of applause filled the 3,100-seat facility, where organizers hung drapes over some empty upper tiers.

The father of seven children, Santorum is well-known for his opposition to contraception, gay marriage and all forms of abortion, themes he briefly explored during a 53-minute speech.

"It's one thing to be pro-life; it's another thing to go out and fight for life," he said. "I have fought for life."

Several hundred feet away, on sidewalks off Hixson Pike, about 80 mostly young, mostly female protesters distributed condoms, chanted slogans - "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Rick Santorum, go away" among them - and worried about losing their reproductive rights under a Santorum administration.

Next to a friend whose homemade poster said "My vag, my rules," Lindy Stallings held up a sign that said, "If the fetus you save is GAY, will you still fight for its rights?"

"A lot of people don't think of it that way," said Stallings, an 18-year-old student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

But their opinions were deeply in the minority Saturday. A large crowd whistled and whooped for Santorum, doling out nearly a dozen partial or full standing ovations throughout his speech.

"Santorum was right on it - he's all about family," said Annie Bandy, a 62-year-old retiree who lives in Rhea County. "I depend on God's government."

Tea party officials did not release an official attendance figure, but an estimated 1,500 gradually trickled in to see Santorum, who arrived 30 minutes earlier than expected.

Slated to appear before Santorum, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann bore the brunt of the scheduling snafu, speaking after the headliner as hordes headed for Santorum or the exits.


In the early days of the 2012 presidential race, Santorum often occupied the far left or far right podium position on televised debates, getting an oddly placed question here and there. But winning Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri earlier this month raised his national profile, and a front-and-center seat last week at a CNN debate in Arizona cemented his status as a contender.

His Chattanooga visit came as he and his opponents debuted new ads, tailored their stump speeches to new states and set their eyes on March 6. Super Tuesday holds 10 presidential primaries - including Tennessee and Georgia - and a 466-delegate jackpot.

A recent poll of likely Tennessee voters showed Santorum with a seven-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the middle of his Saturday speech, Santorum grinned and rubbed his hands together as he said Tennessee voters have "a big voice on Super Tuesday, lots of delegates."

Georgia has the most delegates at stake on Super Tuesday - 76 - and Tennessee has the third-most at 58. Both states award delegates on a proportional basis, not winner-take-all.

Unlike Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Santorum has little organization and no committed delegates in Tennessee, but it may not matter.

If he wins the Volunteer State, the state Republican Party will assign delegates in conjunction with his campaign, party bosses have said.

Romney was the only GOP rival Santorum mentioned by name at Abba's House. Santorum said Romney's newly released tax plan was similar to his own proposal, sarcastically welcoming him to "the club."

"How are we going to convince people in the middle to vote for somebody that we don't even care that much about?" Santorum said.


Tennessee has a mixed history of picking winners in its primary. In 2008, Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Tennessee primary based on appeals to Christian doctrine, but lost the nomination to John McCain.

In 2000, Tennesseans gave George W. Bush nearly 75 percent of the primary vote, and in 1996, Bob Dole took 51 percent of the primary here. Both men became the Republican nominees.

If elderly Tennessee voters nudge Santorum to the top, they may be voting against their interests. A topic Santorum didn't discuss during his Abba's House speech is what he would do with Social Security.

Unlike the rest of the GOP field, Santorum has said he would cut benefits immediately and set a higher eligibility age.

"We need to change benefits for everybody now," he said at an Iowa event in December. "Is everybody going to take a little bit of a hit? No, but a lot of people will."

Most of his opponents have advocated for gradual change, suggesting up to a decade of cushion. They say immediate cuts would hurt retirees and soon-to-be beneficiaries.

Santorum has ruled out tax increases or more deficit spending to bolster Social Security, leaving benefit cuts as the only way to save money. He has not said how much he hopes to immediately trim or exactly who would be affected.

In Tennessee, 43 percent of the state's 65-and-over population would have incomes below the poverty line if they didn't receive Social Security, according to a 2009 AARP study. In Georgia, the 2009 poverty-line number was 36 percent.

After the Abba's House speech, Santorum staffers rebuffed reporters attempting to question the senator about Social Security and other topics.

Staff Writer Joan Garrett contributed to this story.