Gun Range Incident Casts Shadow On Santorum Event

Louisiana holds its Republican primary on Saturday. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — who holds a commanding lead in the state — spent the day campaigning there. A spectator said the former Pennsylvania senator should imagine President Obama was the target.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Louisiana is the latest state in the political spotlight. Its Republican primary is tomorrow and all four GOP candidates campaigned there today. Rick Santorum leads in Louisiana polls, giving him another chance to seize momentum from Mitt Romney. But Santorum's visit to the state was marred today by an ugly incident. NPR's Brian Naylor was there.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The event was held at the Ouachita Parish Shooting Range in West Monroe. Santorum stood before a row of paper targets wearing headphones to mask the noise and accompanied by rangemaster Sergeant Mickey Watts(ph).

SERGEANT MICKEY WATTS: If you would, step over here in the center, address your target and fire at will.

NAYLOR: Santorum emptied two magazines into the target. While he was firing, an unidentified woman in the crowd shouted this out, captured by CBS.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pretend it's Obama.

NAYLOR: Pretend it's Obama. Afterwards, as he took questions from reporters, Santorum said he didn't hear the woman.

RICK SANTORUM: It's absurd. No. We're not pretending it's anybody. We're shooting pistols and, you know, a very horrible and terrible remark and I'm glad I didn't hear it.

NAYLOR: Santorum currently has Secret Service protection. A spokesman told NPR the service is aware of the incident and is, quote, "conducting the appropriate investigative steps." Santorum has spent two full days campaigning in Louisiana this week. Recent polls show he has a good chance of winning here. But a speech he gave yesterday in Texas had Santorum explaining himself. As he often does, Santorum was telling supporters that there's little difference between GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney and President Obama. He then added...

SANTORUM: If they're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have.

NAYLOR: That set off a firestorm of criticism from the conservative blogosphere and other Republican candidates, including Romney. He issued a statement saying he was disappointed that Santorum, quote, "would rather have Barack Obama as president than a Republican." Asked about that today, Santorum insisted that's not what he said.

SANTORUM: I've said repeatedly and will continue to say, I'll vote for whoever the Republican nominee is and go out and work for him. Barack Obama's a disaster, but we can't have someone who agrees with him on some of the biggest issues of the day. And that's the problem with Governor Romney. He doesn't provide the clear choice that we need in order to win this election.

NAYLOR: Santorum was also asked about another big issue, again involving guns, the shooting of 17-year-old Treyvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. Santorum told reporters...

SANTORUM: It's a horrible case. I mean, it's chilling to hear what happened. And, of course, you know, the fact that law enforcement didn't immediately go after prosecuting this case is another chilling example of, you know, obviously, horrible decisions made by people in this process.

NAYLOR: The Romney campaign also issued a statement, calling what happened to Treyvon Martin, quote, "a tragedy," adding, there needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity. Brian Naylor, NPR News, West Monroe, Louisiana.

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