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At a Santorum business breakfast, it’s social issues–not the economy–that fire up the crowd

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
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Rick Santorum speaks at the Livonia Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Livonia, Mich. (Eric Gay/AP)

LIVONIA, Mich. -- Rick Santorum began a morning speech here Monday in front of what initially appeared to be a sleepy group of about 300 business leaders.

For more than half of his talk, the audience, who was sitting at round tables eating breakfast while the former senator spoke, stared at him without making a sound as he made his pitch on taxes and regulation.

Santorum touted his plan to get rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax. Silence. He waxed philosophical about cutting the corporate tax rate. Crickets. Then he pushed for instituting a flat tax. Nothin'.

Finally, nearly 20 minutes in, Santorum delivered the first applause line of the morning--and it had nothing to do with the economy.

"We've got bold and strong plans about how to make America safer and respected," he said. "Not the weak course that allows radicals to try and intimidate us like what's going on in Afghanistan today," he continued, referring to the violent responses from Afghans in retaliation for copies of the Quran that were burned accidentally on an American military base. "Because we fall over ourselves for something we didn't have to apologize for. We made a mistake. The response was, deliberately kill the Americans. That's not a mistake. We should stop apologizing for America and stand up and defend our troops."

At last, the crowd erupted in applause, cheers and whistles.

From then on, the candidate kept his remarks focused on cultural topics, and his audience got even more riled up each time he hit home a new point.

"You hear so much about separation of church and state--I'm for separation of church and state: The state has no business telling the church what to do," he said.

Make that applause line number two.

After that, the volume of his voice rose and his tone sharpened.

"Now it's the church, people of faith who have no right to come to the public square and express their points of view. Or practice their faith outside their church," he said, the tempo of his voice picking up with each sentence. "You can go to the sanctuary, and you can talk all you want. You can have your debate. But if you come here and you try to practice your faith, tough. Then the government's going to tell you what to do. Is that how you interpret the First Amendment?"

"No!" a woman at one of the tables said.

"Freedom of worship is not just what you do within the sanctuary," he said. "It's how you practice your faith outside the sanctuary, and at least the America that I grew up in--that used to be around--that was freedom of religion."

"Yeah!" one man called out, which prompted another round of cheering.

Riding the momentum of the revived crowd, Santorum, kept on going, referring to his belief that there should not be an "absolute" separation of church and state that bars religious leaders from influencing public policy. He was on a roll.

"All the reporters in the back will go, oh, there's Santorum talking about social issues. No, I'm talking about freedom! This is an election about freedom, it's about whether you buy into government can do things better for you than you can do for yourself," he said. "I don't buy into that. I never bought into it."

Well awake now, the crowd clapped some more.

He may have spoken for the first 18 minutes without interruption, but in the ten closing minutes of his speech, Santorum had to pause for cheers eight times. They applauded him for proposing a bill in Congress to set up health savings accounts; for declaring that he does not believe in global warming; for calling Mitt Romney--who spoke to the same group last week--"uniquely unqualified" to debate President Barack Obama on health care and climate change; and for opposing the government bailouts of both the automobile and financial industries.

"At least I'm consistent," he said, a jab at Romney for throwing his support behind guaranteeing government loans to Wall Street but not bailing out Detroit.

While Santorum's economic plan to revive American manufacturing by eliminating all corporate taxes on the industry plays well in Michigan, his focus on cultural issues and the role of government--with some criticism of Romney thrown in--are still his strongest cards on the stump.

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