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Santorum’s hopes may be dashed

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CHARLESTON, S.C.— Former senator Rick Santorum had hoped that South Carolina would be the place where conservative voters coalesced around an alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. And they did — but not around Santorum.

Instead, a resurgent Newt Gingrich will leave South Carolina as the state’s Republican choice and the clearest competitor to Romney. And Santorum will have to answer questions about whether he would drop out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination in favor of former House speaker Gingrich.

Santorum, of Pennsylvania, told enthusiastic supporters gathered at the Citadel in Charleston on Saturday night that he plans to compete hard in the Florida primary Jan. 31 and in the contests that follow.

“Three states, three winners — what a country,” said Santorum, referring to his win in the Iowa caucuses and Romney’s in New Hampshire, as well as Gingrich’s in South Carolina.

He said he would go forward with a message that he described as different from Romney’s or Gingrich’s, an economic message designed to appeal to working-class voters and not just the wealthy.

“I’m going to go out and talk about how we’re going to have a Republican Party, a conservative movement that makes sure that everyone in America has the opportunity to rise,” he said.

Santorum’s remarks concluded, however, with a reminder that he is better known for focusing on social issues, including opposition to same-sex marriage, than on economic ones. A small group of protesters sprinkled his supporters with glitter and chanted, “Bigot, bigot!”

Santorum outpolled Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) to finish in third place in South Carolina after running neck-and-neck with Gingrich for fourth place in New Hampshire.

Earlier Saturday, Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley noted that a Gingrich win would mean that Santorum, Romney and Gingrich would enter Florida with one win each. That is hardly a record that suggests that any one of the three should bow out now, he said.

“The playing field will be level,” he said. “The field’s been whittled to serious candidates, and we take it from here.”

Gidley said Santorum has an aggressive schedule planned in Florida for Sunday and Monday, plans to be at a Tampa debate Monday and has the resources needed to continue airing ads in the state’s expensive television markets.

But Santorum is nevertheless likely to face increasing calls to step aside from conservatives who think that he cannot eclipse Gingrich’s attack on Romney — and that if both Santorum and Gingrich remain in the race, it will lead to Romney’s nomination.

“He’s definitely going to face pressure,” said Mallory Factor, a government professor at the Citadel who organizes an influential weekly meeting of conservatives in New York. “People think he has a personal compass that is beyond reproach, that he’s a wonderful human being. But he’s not capturing the needs and wants and desires of voters who are fed up with [President] Obama.”

The turnabout in South Carolina was typical of the hairpin switches in this year’s Republican contest, in which candidates have taken turns rocketing to the top of the polls and then being shoved aside by the next front-runner.

The dynamic is especially perplexing in Santorum’s case because, by all accounts, the week was full of good news for his campaign.

It started with an endorsement by a group of conservative and religious leaders who met in Texas to decide on a single candidate they thought could best challenge Romney.

Then, a final vote tally in Iowa showed that Santorum won the extremely tight race there, and not Romney, reversing the outcome announced on the night of the caucuses.

And Santorum turned in a solid debate performance in Charleston on Thursday, aggressively arguing that Gingrich is a volatile force whose nomination could harm the Republican Party and that Romney does not present a strong contrast to Obama.

Even so, Santorum made little headway on breaking into the South Carolina battle between Romney and Gingrich.

Despite improved fundraising since Iowa, Santorum’s lean campaign does not have infrastructure or financial backing comparable to that of his rivals.

That disadvantage was highlighted Saturday as his campaign repeatedly changed the timing of his two public events for the day — stops at polling places in Greenville and Chapin — making it difficult for the media to capture his primary day message to voters.

The campaign did not release a schedule of his activities until 7:30 p.m.

Still, at the Citadel, where he gave the keynote Friday night at an annual college Republican Society dinner, Santorum said that his is a “steady Eddie” campaign and that voters will conclude that he is the best candidate to take on Romney after an inevitable Gingrich flameout.

Romney is “a little blah, a little timid,” he said, and Gingrich is “a little too hot.” He compared himself to the guy at the dance who is overlooked at first by all the girls.

“But he’s the guy you can trust” Santorum said to cheers and laughter from the crowd. “He’s the guy that at the end of the evening, when you’ve had your spins with ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold,’ mom and dad will like him just fine.”

Get more news & analysis from PostPolitics: Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina primary Voters say they opted for Gingrich’s ‘guts’ Which Romney will show up after defeat? Exit Polls: “Can beat Obama” is most important quality

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