Santorum, Gingrich stuck in duel for second place — with each other

March 6, 2012

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum said all along that they just needed a clear shot at rival Mitt Romney to prove that they were the natural conservative in the race.

Now each has had that chance. And on Tuesday, the biggest day of voting so far in the Republican nominating contest, Santorum seemed to move closer to laying claim to the No. 2 spot, winning three states and coming in a close second to Romney in the race for the biggest prize, Ohio.

Santorum proudly declared himself the runner-up of the night.

“We’re going to win a few. We’re going to lose a few,” Santorum told supporters at an election-night gathering in Steubenville, Ohio. “But as it looks right now, we’re going to get at least a couple of gold medals, and a whole passel full of silver medals.”

Still, with Gingrich’s decisive win in Georgia, Santorum emerges from Super Tuesday having to fend off the former House speaker in the race for second place and will be unable to focus exclusively on Romney.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcomes, Gingrich declared his determination to stay in the contest, unwilling to acknowledge that any anti-Romney sentiment might have coalesced around Santorum.

Empowered by his home-state victory and with favorable primaries on the horizon in Mississippi and Alabama, Gingrich said he would fight Santorum every step of the way.

“Remember when it was Tim Pawlenty who was going to crowd me out?” Gingrich told a cheering crowd in suburban Atlanta on Tuesday night. “And remember then when it was Michele Bachmann? And then it was our good friend Herman Cain, the first time? And then, for a brief moment, it was Donald Trump — almost. And then it was our good friend Rick Perry, then it was Herman Cain the second time, and now it’s Santorum.”

“And you just can’t quite get across to them,” he continued. “It’s all right. There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I am the tortoise. I just take one step at a time.

Both Santorum and Gingrich are motivated to carry on primarily because they believe the appetite for an alternative to Romney remains high among Republican primary voters, many of whom distrust his moderate record as Massachusetts governor and are turned off by his tendency to commit verbal gaffes.

Gingrich is so determined to continue the campaign that he flew Tuesday to Alabama, which does not vote for another week. Gingrich appeared at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, reaffirming his support for more space exploration — and proclaiming that he is the only visionary in the race who would bring real change to Washington. Gingrich will return to Alabama on Wednesday, and he heads to Mississippi and Kansas after that — continuing, he said, his plan to perform well in Southern and conservative states.

Santorum has mounted a clever, under-the-radar campaign for much of the race, initially focusing his attention entirely on Iowa, then quickly pivoting to states where he could win a series of symbolic victories.

The effort paid off, yielding a sweep last month of caucuses in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. He finally got a head-to-head matchup last week against Romney in Michigan, where Gingrich did not compete. A victory there would not only have been a major boost for the former senator from Pennsylvania, but also could have delivered a severe blow to Romney.

But Santorum narrowly lost that contest. His shoe-string campaign operation is ill-equipped to mount the state-by-state slog that will be necessary for him to make up that deficit. And even in states where he has an advantage because of the large number of evangelical or working-class voters who have been slow to warm to Romney, he must duel with Gingrich in an unglamorous game of second-place “Survivor.”

Gingrich’s path has been equally uncertain. After the abrupt collapse of his campaign last spring, Gingrich blazed his own trail, campaigning hard in the early states, getting little attention from the media but slowly gaining notice among voters for his sharp debate performances.

Gingrich finally got his chance in the spotlight in late fall. But with conservative voters divided among a series of candidates who still remained in the race, Gingrich’s commanding lead evaporated alongside an onslaught of negative advertising paid for by Romney and his supporters.

Gingrich insisted that he could beat Romney if only he could get a clear shot at him. But then in Florida — like Santorum in Michigan — Gingrich nearly had that shot. And he succumbed to Romney’s superior firepower in advertising, organization and establishment support.

Gardner reported from Atlanta, and Somashekhar reported from Washington. Staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson in Steubenville contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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