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As Ohio vote looms, Santorum focuses on foreign policy

Rick Santorum spoke during a campaign rally at the Dayton Christian School Monday in Miamisburg, Ohio.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rick Santorum spoke during a campaign rally at the Dayton Christian School Monday in Miamisburg, Ohio.

MIAMISBURG, Ohio -- Rick Santorum took swipes at President Obama and Mitt Romney Monday, castigating both for not heeding the threat posed by Iran to US national security.

During a speech at Dayton Christian School, Santorum asserted that the presidential election is about more than just the economy and should also address what an aide of Romney, his chief rival, says are distractions being injected into the GOP’s campaign to oust President Obama from the White House.

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On the eve of Tuesday’s 10-state Super Tuesday, Santorum was striving to hold on to his lead in Ohio, where he hopes to win the popular vote by further differentiating himself from the former Massachusetts governor.

“The economy is important,” Santorum said. “We don’t know what this election environment will look like come this fall. One of the key issues in this election may very well be national security.”

Why would a country like Iran be developing what it calls a peaceful nuclear energy program when it is has a wealth of oil and gas, Santorum asked.

“Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, even though this administration denies that fact,” Santorum said.

“He hasn’t quite agreed that Iran is building a nuclear weapon,” Santorum said of the president. “I think we need a president who can grasp reality a little bit better.”

Tuesday, Santorum plans to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel advocacy group.

The president addressed the group Sunday and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Monday.

“As I emphasized yesterday, it is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the president said in a joint appearance with Netanyahu.

Santorum cast himself as more experienced than Romney in the arena of foreign policy, reminding Monday’s crowd, most of them students taken out of class for the political assembly, that he served for eight years on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.

“We need someone who can take on this president on all fronts,” Santorum said.

Santorum has been criticized for injecting religion and conservative social issues into the presidential race. His controversial positions have caused some unease among some establishment Republicans who believe the former Pennsylvania senator may be too conservative to win in November.

Santorum has dismissed those criticisms.

During his speech Monday, Santorum also took direct hits at Romney, particularly at his rival’s economic plan and for the health care program he put in place as governor of Massachusetts.

He dismissed Romney’s 59-point economic plan as mere “tinkering” that doesn’t go far enough to simplify the country’s tax code.

With Romney as the GOP’s nominee, Santorum said that the Republican Party would forfeit its most potent issue against the Democrats: Obamacare.

“The most basic issue in this campaign is about trust,” said Santorum, who again cast himself as the scrappy, working-class underdog from the neighboring state of Pennsylvania. Despite being underfunded, Santorum remains neck-and-neck with Romney. By some accounts, he said, “we shouldn’t even be in this race.”

Asked to respond to Santorum’s criticism of Romney, Andrea Saul, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said, “Senator Santorum’s base is Obama supporters. The last thing the White House wants is to have to face Mitt Romney in a general election, so Senator Santorum is relying on them to throw the primary in his direction. Mitt Romney has won five contests in a row and won in every corner of the United States with Republican voters. It’s going to take a businessman who is not a creature of Washington to change the status quo.”

The Rev. Phil Hopper drove an hour with his family to hear Santorum speak, and liked what he heard.

“He spoke with passion. He didn’t speak like he was reading from a script,” said Hopper, who until a month ago was leaning toward voting for Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

Santorum’s underdog persona clearly resonated with Hopper.

“Even if you have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have values, it all falls apart,” Hopper said.

Ed Webster, a house painter, said he remained undecided and wanted to see Santorum in the flesh and hear his words unfiltered before making up his mind.

“If I could, I’d like a chance to interview him for a half hour,” Webster said. “I want to know what he’s going to do. I want specifics.”

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.
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