The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has moved from Iowa and New Hampshire on to South Carolina, but the strains of some of its speechmakers still echo through New England.
Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich are not just disputing President Obama’s policies but his belief in the country, its Constitution, and its founding principles.
It is dangerous territory when running against the nation’s first black president, someone who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and still faces questions from “birthers’’ about whether he was born in the United States or his father’s native Kenya.
Senator John McCain, the GOP’s most recent presidential nominee, sensed the danger last year. He wrote an op-ed column branding Obama “a patriot’’ and declared, “I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals.’’
So far, the 2012 candidates have avoided labeling the president “un-American’’ - but they’ve gotten close.
“I make a very proud statement and a fact that we have a president that’s a socialist,’’ Perry, the governor of Texas, said during a debate last weekend. “I disagree with that premise that somehow or another President Obama reflects our Founding Fathers. He doesn’t.’’
Gingrich, meanwhile, stokes the image of a president eager to preside over a welfare state.
“President Obama is the most effective food stamp president in American history. No president has put more people on food stamps than Obama,’’ said Gingrich, the former House speaker. “This is not an attack; it’s a statement. And it’s not negative; it’s a fact. I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history.’’
Polls show Perry and Gingrich as long shots to win the nomination. Romney, though, is the front-runner, the most likely to reach the general election against Obama.
The tenor and message in his stump speech have special resonance.
In one version of his speech, Romney told an audience in Exeter, N.H., last week that the foundation for his campaign was spelled out on the banner hanging over his head: “Believe in America.’’
Romney said he was prompted to run against Obama because the liberal Democrat had sold out his country overseas - an allegation disputed by fact-checkers.
“I watched the president not just apologize to the world as he visited foreign places, but I thought I saw in him someone who didn’t have the same level of passion about the founding principles of the country that I imagined that many of us have,’’ Romney told the crowd at Exeter High School.
Romney continued: “I respect the president. I think he’s a nice guy. And I’m sure he loves the country and wants it to do well. I just don’t think he understands the principles that make us who we are.’’
Aides buttress the point by arguing that Obama has looked abroad to define US policy. They note that the president cited the example of other industrialized nations in clamoring for universal health care, and sought last week to cut the US military by pointing out it is larger than the militaries of the next 10 countries combined.
The Romney aides also say Obama’s own rhetoric is divisive, using phrases such as, “This is our time.’’ They argue he is pitting middle-income workers against the rich and calling for the redistribution of wealth between the two.
Yet in his own speeches, Romney divides the country along a different line: between those who believe in its character and founding principles, and those who do not.
And his main rhetorical device mimics Gingrich’s, arguing that Obama believes in an “entitlement’’ society rooted in government handouts while he favors an “opportunity’’ society dispensing rewards based on merit.
“The result is going to be a change in the American character,’’ Romney warned last week.
He said that Obama - who has proclaimed himself a transformational figure - is bent on turning a capitalistic United States into a European welfare state. “His vision for America is wrong; our vision is right. We believe in America,’’ Romney said to wild cheers.Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.