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Originally published February 13, 2012 at 9:23 PM | Page modified February 14, 2012 at 11:31 AM

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Santorum takes on protesters at Tacoma rally

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum brought his campaign to Washington state Monday, the same day that Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation legalizing gay marriage.

Seattle Times political reporter

'Occupy' protesters interrupt Santorum

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TACOMA — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum capped off a daylong campaign trip to Washington state with a raucous rally Monday night, linking protesters who repeatedly interrupted his speech to an Obama administration he portrayed as out to destroy dissent and rule "from the top down."

Visiting ahead of the state's March 3 Republican caucuses, Santorum worked to position himself as the true conservative in the race — meeting with gay-marriage foes at an Olympia church earlier in the day, just after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law the bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Santorum rally later drew hundreds of supporters to a packed outdoor amphitheater at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. But also on hand were demonstrators, including some who chanted themes from the recent Occupy Wall Street protests.

Santorum sparred with the protesters throughout his speech, trying to draw a rhetorical link between their interruptions and the Obama administration's decisions about government regulations, including the recent controversy over whether religious nonprofits must cover contraception.

"What we see is an intolerance of different points of view, those who do not want the other side to have a voice," Santorum said at the rally.

As protesters continued to disrupt his speech, police dragged two of them away.

The former Pennsylvania senator has been riding a national wave of popularity among conservative Republican voters looking for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

At the rally, Santorum blamed President Obama for dividing America, claiming the president had latched on to the divisive slogans of the Occupy Wall Street protests and pitted class against class. America was better when it was more unified, he said.

"The greatness of our country is not our diversity," he said. "The greatness of our country is in spite of our diversity we can come together and we can join together and build a great and just society."

Santorum's speech drew loud cheers from supporters, including Nikki James, of Orting, who repeatedly yelled "President Santorum." James said she was taken by Santorum's stand against "moral relativism" and government control, as well as his "fresh face."

"He looks like he's telling the truth," she said.

Outside the Tacoma rally, some protesters held signs decrying Santorum's stand on gay marriage. "Bigots don't belong in the White House," said one.

Kay Bratton held a rainbow banner with several others, telling passing Santorum supporters they'd lost the gay-marriage fight. "It's the law, get over it," she said.

In Olympia earlier, Santorum met with more than 100 pastors and other "values voters," offering his support for their efforts to repeal the gay-marriage law during a closed-door meeting at Calvary Chapel before heading to the state Capitol to meet with Republican legislators.

"I told them to keep up the fight, that this is an important issue for our families; it is an important issue for religious liberty," he said of his meeting with church leaders, during a news conference Monday afternoon.

Santorum said it doesn't make sense to have each state define marriage its own way and that he would push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

"We have a serious issue about trying to get moms and dads to marry and stay together," he said.

"I don't see this as encouraging that. I think that at least from my perspective it tends to water down marriage instead of encouraging men and women to form healthy marriages, and that to me should be the objective of the government because that is in the best interests of our society."

Until recently, Santorum hadn't been organizing in Washington, but his campaign has shown signs of life in the run-up to the state's caucuses, and he is the first candidate to visit.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign released a list of more than 100 Washington politicians and other endorsers Monday and held a conference call with reporters to argue Romney has the best shot at defeating Obama.

"There is no question in my mind that he is the most electable of the Republican candidates," said Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Spokane, who is Romney's state campaign chairwoman.

Santorum was greeted with loud applause when he walked into the House Republican caucus Monday for a quick question-and-answer session with members — even though many of them have endorsed Romney.

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said he supports Romney and that the chat with Santorum didn't change his mind.

Romney at this point has broader appeal, DeBolt said, but he added that Santorum "was pretty dynamic today, so I'm going to watch and see what happens."

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, another Romney supporter, also said he was impressed with Santorum.

"He talks my lingo," Zarelli said. "I endorsed Romney, but I would not be disheartened if he (Santorum) was the candidate as well."

Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @Jim_Brunner

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