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Rick Santorum starts to get Newt Gingrich treatment from Mitt Romney

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LAS VEGAS — Rick Santorum is starting to receive the Newt Gingrich treatment.

With polls showing Santorum the more serious threat in two states voting on Tuesday, Minnesota and Missouri, Mitt Romney’s campaign on Monday unloaded on the former Pennsylvania senator the way it did on Gingrich in the run-up to last month’s Florida primary.

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The Romney campaign scheduled a conference call with reporters featuring former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty discussing Santorum’s “long history of earmarks and pork-barrel spending.” The campaign also distributed a research dossier to reporters with “a summary of his past discredited attacks against Governor Romney” over the Massachusetts health care law.

The Romney team has not unleashed these kinds of attacks on Santorum since the days following his narrow win in the Iowa caucuses last month. The assault is not as broad as the one on Gingrich in Florida, however; as of Monday, the Romney campaign is not airing any paid negative advertisements about Santorum.

Romney advisers consider Minnesota, where public polling has been inconsistent and is considered unreliable, to be up for grabs. And they see Santorum as the strongest threat in the state, where Republican primary voters are expected to be overwhelmingly conservative.

While Romney campaigned last week in Eagan, Minn., the former Massachusetts governor cancelled a planned trip back to Minnesota on Monday to instead spend more time in Colorado, the third state voting on Tuesday. Romney has a more robust operation in Colorado and polls show him with a lead there.

Missouri is holding a “beauty contest” primary, which could provide the winner momentum but will not award any GOP convention delegates.

“It’s a delegate fight now and we expect to be battling for every delegate that’s up for grabs,” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Sunday. “I can’t predict what will happen on Tuesday, but whatever happens there will be no delegates awarded based on the outcome. The next time that happens will be at the end of the month in Arizona and Michigan. We will be making an extra effort in both those places.”

Last week, Fehrnstrom signaled that the Romney campaign would not limit its attacks on Gingrich alone. “I think it’s hard for Newt to characterize this as a two-person race between him and Mitt,” Fehrnstrom told reporters aboard the campaign’s chartered jet on Jan. 30. “There are other states where we view Ron Paul as our chief competitor or Rick Santorum.”

In a statement Monday morning, Pawlenty, a former presidential candidate, assailed Santorum as not up to the job of being president and out-of-step with the Republican Party’s fiscal conservatives.

“Rick Santorum is a nice guy, but he is simply not ready to be president,” Pawlenty said. “Plus, he wants Minnesota conservatives to believe he’s as conservative as they are, but he’s not. As a U.S. senator, he was a leading earmarker and pork-barrel spender. He described himself as ‘very proud’ of the billions of dollars in pork-barrel projects he championed, and promised to defend the wasteful spending. Even in the face of crushing federal debt, Rick Santorum voted for the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ That type of leadership will not help us rein in government and slash the unprecedented federal debt.”

Santorum’s campaign responded with an e-mailed statement that quoted spokesman Hogan Gidley: “If Governor Romney is confident running on his record and his vision for the future, he would. But Gov. Romney does what he always does and directs his well-funded attack machine to destroy the opponent. . .Rick Santorum is the only conservative candidate who is positioned to defeat Obama because he can credibly and effectively attack the President for supporting big government healthcare mandates, government bailouts, and radical cap and trade initiatives. . . .”

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