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Rick Santorum looks beyond Florida to coming GOP contests

After three straight losses, including a double-digit drubbing here Tuesday night, one question looms over Rick Santorum’s bid for the Republican nomination.

Now what?

The former Pennsylvania senator barely contested the race here. He had no ads on the air, campaigned only a few days and scrapped his weekend schedule after his daughter took sick. Still, his poor showing only ramped up questions about the long-term viability of his candidacy.

Since consolidating the evangelical and social conservative vote in Iowa to score a surprise late-inning win in the first contest of the year, Santorum has lost much of that conservative support to Newt Gingrich, who won South Carolina on the strength of social conservatives and garnered a majority of evangelical voters here in the Sunshine State.

Despite the long odds, Santorum aides were insisting that losing big in Florida was a kind of victory.

“We knew that whoever came in second place in Florida, it would be difficult for that person to go on. Gingrich spent millions and he lost. Any serious momentum he had has vanished,” said John Brabender, a Santorum aide. “We didn’t get caught in that trap.”

Santorum held a tea party town hall Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas and spent election night there with supporters, watching the returns roll in.

Santorum also aired a new television commercial in Nevada, which holds its nominating contest Saturday, and in Colorado, where voters go to the polls Tuesday.

The commercial, called “Deal,” continues to press Santorum’s case that Romney is not conservative enough to be the nominee and that Santorum is the true conservative left in the race. To make that point, the ad links Gingrich to such Democrats as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and President Obama on such key issues as immigration, health care and cap-and-trade policies to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“Who are these three cap-and-trade-loving, bailout-supporting, soft-on-immigration, big-government-mandating politicians?” the commercial asks, touting Santorum as the candidate who “doesn’t just talk a good conservative game, he lives it.”

Indeed, Santorum’s personal story has become central to his candidacy, and some see an opening in his ability to connect with voters.

“Rick Santorum is most compelling when talking about his coal miner grandfather, and his seven children and his personal travails as a father and husband,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican strategist. “He can go as traveling salesman from caucus to caucus and debate to debate. Can he connect on a personal basis? Yes. Does that convince voters that he is electable? No.”

With the Nevada contest a just days away — and Romney heavily favored, as well as Ron Paul — Santorum is already looking to next Tuesday, when voters in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota will hold contests.

As polls closed here Tuesday, his campaign issued a request for donations and sent out poll numbers showing the him doing well in Missouri and Ohio.

In the coming days, Santorum and Romney are likely to target Gingrich, who said Tuesday that Florida had made it a two-man race, between him and Romney.

“It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said.

But Santorum is looking forward to the chance to take on Romney one-on-one, as well. His team thinks the fact that Gingrich isn’t on the ballot in Missouri will give them a chance to go head-to-head with Romney and helps make the case that Gingrich can’t go the distance.

“We actually feel pretty good. All along, our strategy has been getting a one-on-one with Mitt Romney,” Brabender said. “With Newt Gingrich falling away, people will give us a look.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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