Underdog candidate Santorum gets Romney’s attention

February 8, 2012

WASHINGTON | Wed Feb 8, 2012 1:18pm EST

(Reuters) – Rick Santorum’s underdog campaign for the Republican presidential nomination got something of a boost on Monday: a little respect from front-runner Mitt Romney.

After repeatedly attacking rival Newt Gingrich for weeks, Romney’s well-funded campaign shifted its aim toward Santorum, accusing the former Pennsylvania senator of having a “long history of pork-barrel spending.”

Santorum fired back by blasting Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, as a candidate who relies on destroying opponents to gain voters’ support.

To Santorum’s campaign and many of his supporters, the exchange left an unmistakable impression: Our guy is still a player in the Republican race – or at least enough of one to concern Romney.

“I love it,” said Foster Friess, the billionaire investor from Wyoming who has given $381,000 to fundraising groups that support Santorum. “It’s phenomenal. Romney is taking him seriously. I think that is pretty thrilling.”

Romney’s attacks came a day before voters in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota cast ballots in the latest contests in the state-by-state process to determine which Republican will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.

They follow some polls showing Santorum was leading in Minnesota and was second to Romney in Colorado.

Among the Republican hopefuls, Romney has by far the biggest organization, the most money and the most momentum after big victories in Florida and Nevada.

Romney’s wins have stemmed in part from an aggressive assault on Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker who, like Santorum, is trying to cast himself as the more conservative alternative to Romney.

Missouri’s primary will be a “beauty contest” because no delegates to the Republican convention will be at stake. The delegates that will pledge their support to candidates will be awarded in caucuses on March 17.

Even so, Missouri could give a boost to Santorum. The former senator has led recent statewide polls, and Gingrich did not qualify for the ballot there because he did not submit the necessary paperwork in time.

Going head-to-head against Romney in Missouri will give Santorum the matchup that his campaign craves: a fight against Romney in which Santorum is the main attraction for the most conservative Republicans.

Analysts expect a low turnout in Missouri. But the state’s proximity to the Bible Belt and the Rust Belt could make it a preview of upcoming contests in the Midwest and South.

Romney’s showing in Missouri could be sign of his strength in the campaign’s biggest showdown: “Super Tuesday,” when 10 states will vote on March 6. Gingrich is hoping to revitalize his campaign with a good showing that day.

In Tuesday’s contests, Santorum holds a small lead in Minnesota and should place second behind Romney in Colorado, according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm.

SEEKING THE BLUE-COLLAR VOTE

Santorum, a social conservative who has cast himself as a populist, defeated Romney by a razor-thin margin in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the 2012 nomination race.

Despite his strong performances in several televised debates, the rest of January was a disappointment for Santorum. Three weeks ago, Gingrich was suggesting that Santorum should drop out of the race.

But Santorum’s mission has always been to outlast everyone but Romney, and then present himself as the alternative.

Along the way Santorum has made a point of trying to appeal to working-class voters, and in recent days has targeted that demographic in Missouri and Minnesota.

He often talks about his hardscrabble upbringing, drawing a contrast with Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor who co-founded a private equity firm. Romney has been clumsy in discussing his personal wealth, estimated at up to $250 million.

“I love Romney,” Friess told Reuters. “It is not his fault that he is the son of a successful governor and makes $20 million a year. Rick Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner. His dad was the manager of a V.A. hospital. Who’s got the best shot of winning the blue-collar vote?”

Santorum campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley tried to link his candidate’s chances to those of Obama in 2008, when Obama was facing a fellow U.S. senator and former first lady, Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“The Romney campaign, their basic argument for electability is money and infrastructure,” Gidley said. “Boy, that is one inspiring message. No one had more money and infrastructure than Hillary Clinton. And hope and change wiped her off the map.”

GAINING SUPPORT

Santorum’s campaign is touting a new poll from Rasmussen that shows him as the only Republican who could defeat Obama.

Those results aren’t reflected in other polls, however. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates that 56 percent of Republican-leaning voters believe Romney is the Republican with the best chance to beat Obama, while only 2 percent think that of Santorum.

Still, while some conservative activists are beginning to rally around Romney, others are siding with Santorum. Those include writers and bloggers Michelle Malkin, Ed Morrissey and David Limbaugh.

Last week, Limbaugh’s brother Rush, the popular conservative radio host, singled out Santorum for praise.

“Everybody is guilty of some transgression somewhere against conservatism, except Santorum,” Limbaugh told his listeners.

Tuesday “should be a big day” for Santorum, said Missouri Republican strategist Jeff Roe, who added that, with Gingrich not on the ballot, there was pressure on Santorum to do well.

“If he can’t win these states coming up,” Roe said, “then his campaign might very well be doomed.”

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  • About Samuel

    "Sam is a Reuters correspondent covering the 2012 campaign. Previously, he was an associate editor at Newsweek and a staff reporter for The Daily Beast. His writing has also appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Observer."
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