Rick Santorum stumps in Newt Gingrich’s territory: Georgia

ATLANTA — Battling for Super Tuesday dominance in the South, Rick Santorum ventured into Newt Gingrich’s back yard on Thursday to pitch himself as the only conservative option left in what he says is a two-man Republican presidential race that does not include Gingrich.

Santorum tried to portray the former House speaker as a man of the past who cannot win.

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RACE FOR DELEGATES: Stepping up to the GOP nomination
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RACE FOR DELEGATES: Stepping up to the GOP nomination

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“We’re in a time when we need someone who can go out and execute and someone who can go out and stand up for those principled positions and draw the bright contrasts, and I just don’t think the contrasts are quite there for Speaker Gingrich as they are for us,” Santorum said at an event at an Atlanta airport hangar. “I have a lot of respect for him, but . . . Newt came in fourth in Michigan, the same thing in Wyoming.”

Until recently, Santorum had been focused on besting Gingrich among conservative voters in each contest, but after a series of wins in February cast him as the main challenger to Mitt Romney, the establishment front-runner, Santorum has been eager to dismiss Gingrich’s campaign as a lost cause.

“He’s not campaigning anywhere else but here. You gotta be able to win in states that aren’t your home base,” the former senator from Pennsylvania said Thursday. “You gotta be able to go out and prove that you are electable other than in your own back yard.”

This was also a direct shot at Romney after a close contest on Tuesday in Michigan, where Romney was born and raised. The results of that primary grew more contentious Thursday after leaders of the state’s Republican Party changed the way delegates are awarded. The final results seemed to show that Romney and Santorum would each receive 15 delegates, but saying that the initial ruling was a mistake, the party leaders decided the next day to give Romney 16 delegates and Santorum, 14.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday night, Santorum’s campaign said that it had drafted a letter to the Republican National Committee asking for an inquiry

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) said it was “a very sad commentary on the Romney campaign” that it would “break the rules and they would risk tearing . . . a state party apart over one delegate.”

John Brabender, a senior adviser to Santorum, said he expects such things to happen “maybe in Iran or other countries,” but not in the United States.

A Romney aide, pushed back against the criticism and accused Santorum of trying to hijack the process by encouraging Democrats to vote in the Michigan primary.

While Santorum continued to portray the Michigan contest as a tie, he will go into next week’s Super Tuesday with disadvantages and facing questions about his ability to win. He did not qualify for the ballot in Virginia, where he lives. He is not on the ballot in three congressional districts in Ohio, forfeiting any chance to win nine of the state’s 66 delegates.

And more significant, Thursday provided evidence of the difficulty Santorum faces in trying to talk more about the economy and less about social issues, as his campaign has signaled it would do. He delivered one speech to enthusiastic church folks at one stop, and another to more fiscal-minded business types at the next. This is a tension and a challenge that is likely to define his campaign going forward. Santorum’s campaign has become the one of last resort to many evangelicals and conservatives seeking relevance in a race that has become more about the economy, and in a party split about its direction.

After promising on Wednesday to talk more about the economy, Santorum criticized Romney on Thursday as insufficiently conservative, contrasting his own record as a foot soldier in the culture wars with the former Massachusetts governor’s recent statements about the Blunt amendment, which would give employers the option to exclude certain health services in their insurance plans on religious grounds.

“When Governor Romney was asked that question, his knee-jerk reaction was, ‘No, I can’t be for that.’ And then after his consultants talked to him, he came back and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t understand the question.’ Well maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Santorum said. “I tell you, if I was asked a question like that . . . my gut reaction would be you stand with the First Amendment. You stand for freedom of religion.”

Romney has since said that he supported the Blunt amendment, which was defeated in the Senate. His campaign hit Santorum back, saying that the former senator’s “gut reaction” is to “take one for the team,” a reference to Santorum’s vote on the No Child Left Behind education legislation.

For Super Tuesday, Santorum sees fertile ground in Georgia, and in Ohio, Oklahoma and North Dakota. He spent time Thursday in Washington state, which will hold its caucuses on Saturday. Santorum also thinks he will do well in Idaho, where Romney generated something he is not known for: excitement.

More than 1,200 supporters greeted Romney in the Skyline High School gymnasium in Idaho Falls with booming applause. In the snowy parking lot outside, 1,000 more stood in line for a place in an overflow gym. The school’s marching band played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and when Romney gave his speeches — one for each gym — the crowds were so loud that they drowned out some of his lines. One woman held a sign that read: “Mitt Is Bringing Sexy Back.”

 
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