Gingrich and Santorum set sights on South Carolina — and Romney

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum emerged from the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday with the same purpose in mind: to get to South Carolina and dethrone Mitt Romney.

But while Santorum will continue selling himself as the strongest conservative alternative, Gingrich has a more direct plan: to take Romney down.

Gingrich’s and Santorum’s back-of-the-pack finishes Tuesday — Gingrich took fourth place and Santorum fifth, according to preliminary returns — give neither candidate a big bump heading to a state that has chosen the eventual Republican nominee in every primary since 1980.

But each insists he is well positioned to rally divided conservative voters around him — and stop the advance of Romney, whose back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire have lent his campaign an air of inevitability.

“This is step two of a long process,” Gingrich said at his election-night party in downtown Manchester.

Santorum, at his party, said: “We delivered a message, not just for New Hampshire, but a message for America.”

Gingrich has long boasted a formidable campaign operation in South Carolina, with five offices, more than a dozen staff members and a strong network of tea party support, including two large and well-organized groups in Myrtle Beach and Charleston.

But the real game-changer for Gingrich could be the blistering assault he and his supporters have launched against Romney.

“The goal is to get rid of Romney,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said. “Our goal is to remove Mitt Romney from the competitive ranks.”

The campaign has spent $250,000 to air a brutal ad in South Carolina portraying Romney’s “pro-abortion” actions as Massachusetts governor. And a pro-Gingrich group operating independently will spend $3.4 million characterizing Romney as a corporate raider who bankrupted companies and cut thousands of jobs as the head of Bain Capital.

“Romney appointed a pro-abortion judge, expanded access to abortion pills, put Planned Parenthood on a state medical board, but failed to put a pro-life group on the same board,” the campaign ad’s narrator says.

She concludes: “Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney — he can’t be trusted.”

Gingrich will also continue touting his long record as a Republican Party leader, his “Reagan conservatism” and his career as a House member from adjoining Georgia — and he will contrast it all with Romney, he said at a polling stop in Manchester on Tuesday.

“I was for Reagan when [Romney] was an independent,” Gingrich said. “I was for the Contract With America when he was running to the left of Ted Kennedy. When you look at the totality of his career, it’s a real stretch for South Carolinians to decide that the state of [Michael] Dukakis and Ted Kennedy is sending them a conservative leader.”

Whether such efforts can blunt Romney’s momentum is unclear. For weeks, Gingrich had pledged to run a positive campaign, and his abrupt change of heart could turn off voters. And his talk of Romney’s work at Bain Capital could alienate conservatives who view the message as an assault on capitalism.

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, and Gingrich, a former House speaker, will have company when they land in the Palmetto State: Texas Gov. Rick Perry skipped New Hampshire altogether and has been campaigning in South Carolina for days. But Perry, whose rocky performances in debates and in the Iowa caucuses have left him languishing in the single digits in the most recent South Carolina polls, has a steeper hill to climb.

In Iowa, Santorum made a specific appeal to conservatives concerned with social issues. In New Hampshire, he worked to broaden his appeal with a populist tax plan designed to revive manufacturing that he said could help Republicans win industrial swing states. He also said he offered the strongest message on maintaining America’s strength in the world, promising to conduct airstrikes in Iran if it does not end its nuclear program after sanctions and other threats.

That message failed to translate into a strong showing at the polls Tuesday, but South Carolina’s large evangelical population — and the nearly $3 million Santorum has raised since Iowa — could create a different scenario. And his awkward focus in New Hampshire on same-sex marriage — he compared it to polygamy in an exchange with a teenager at a college last week — may matter less with South Carolina’s more conservative Republican electorate.

Moreover, Santorum aides said their on-the-ground organization in South Carolina is stronger than anyone realizes. Santorum has county captains signed up in 42 of South Carolina’s 46 counties — more, they say, than any other campaign. He’s been to the state 27 times and will make six campaign stops Wednesday and Thursday.

“The key for us is to eventually rise as the conservative alternative,” Santorum said in New Hampshire on Tuesday. “The idea that the first two or three primaries are going to decide this race is ridiculous. There’s a long way to go. There is a very strong sentiment in this country on the Republican side, among conservatives, that we want a conservative alternative. Eventually, one is going to rise.”

In New Hampshire, voters who cast ballots for Romney offered insights into both the opportunity and the challenge facing the rest of the field. At Goffstown High School, in a small town northwest of Manchester, voters said they wanted to pick someone else — but Romney seemed the smarter choice if the goal is to defeat President Obama in November.

“My heart was with Newt and with Santorum, because they’re so much more conservative,” said Consuelo Peterson, 62, a retired Boeing employee. “But I don’t think they can go the distance. They may drop out. And I need someone who can beat Obama. Romney’s got the greatest chance.”

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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