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Santorum, short on cash, fights uphill battle

In his speech after finishing a distant third in the South Carolina primary, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum declared that he was one of “three winners” out of the first three GOP contests. It was a hopeful spin on a disappointing finish, and now San­torum faces a new reality here in Florida: He is short on cash, and he is the odd man out in what is shaping up to be a two-man contest.

On the debate stage on Monday night in Tampa, Santorum was relegated to potted-plant status as rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney focused on each other.

“I felt like selling popcorn,” he said.

Santorum was eager to move off the sidelines in a CNN debate Thursday night in Jacksonville, aides said.

But polls show him with much ground to cover and little time.

According to a new CNN-Time poll, 11 percent of Republican voters support the former senator from Pennsylvania, which puts him 20 points behind former House speaker Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Romney, who are in a dead heat.

Gingrich is drawing crowds in the thousands, and the Romney campaign is flooding the airwaves with ads. But Santorum is struggling to reach that level of media attention and doesn’t have the funds to cover the state on the stump or with TV ads. He’s airing no ads in Florida right now.

In Iowa, he won the old-fashioned way, visiting all 99 counties in a pickup truck, appealing to evangelical Christian voters with stories of his Catholic faith and strong conservative convictions. But in Florida, a massive state where nearly 2 million Republicans cast ballots in 2008, that approach won’t work.

So Santorum and his aides are looking beyond the Sunshine State primary on Tuesday, which is winner-take-all, and plotting a strategy with a blue-collar evangelical message that they think will give him staying power as the race plays out.

He is not — contrary to what people might think, given his standing in the polls — going to drop out, his advisers insist.

“Our focus is a national strategy; it’s not just a Florida strategy. We aren’t going to get sucked into that trap,” said Hogan Gidley, a Santorum adviser. “We are going to hit Missouri and Colorado and Minnesota, and we aren’t going to get stuck spending every moment in Florida.”

Santorum’s upcoming schedule is heavy on fundraising in his home state of Pennsylvania and light on events in Florida, where on Friday he will do radio interviews and address a Latino group in Miami.

He then heads to Pennsylvania to hit the money trail, but also for a more mundane task: fetching his tax returns.

“I want to get that issue out there and behind me so I’m not the guy who’s not doing their taxes,” he said.

Santorum has highlighted his “average Joe” approach here, focusing on his grandfather’s humble roots working in the coal mines and casting himself as a champion of blue-collar workers.

“He has a natural constituency in Florida based on all the snowbirds who have come down from the industrial Northeast and the large Catholic population,” said Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “They have been hurt by the mortgage crisis — they are concerned about Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. He could do well in the inland counties — in Orlando, St. Petersburg, north of Tampa. But you can’t compete in Florida if you can’t get your message out.”

Aides said the campaign is working on potential ads in other states and expanding its staff, picking up supporters of Mike Huckabee from 2008.

But Santorum, who lost the evangelical vote to Gingrich in South Carolina even after getting the backing of a coalition of religious leaders, is having trouble tapping into some of the more strident populist sentiment that the former Georgia congressman has mastered.

At nearly every event, someone comes up to Santorum and advises him to be more forceful, angry and passionate in his approach. So far, he hasn’t taken that advice, although he suggested he might be a touch fiery in Thursday night’s debate.

Still, don’t expect Santorum to pull a Gingrich — whose tough, outsized personality appeals to some voters — any time soon.

“I don’t think an angry candidate is what we want in the fall,” Santorum said. “I don’t think angry is going to win — I think people want to like their president. I think people want to see someone that is positive and upbeat and not sort of pointing their finger, angry all the time. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t times appropriate for anger, but it shouldn’t be the main virtue of our candidate.”

Among his supporters, however, there are doubts about San­torum’s long-term viability beyond Florida.

“He’s my favorite, but I’m afraid that he can’t win a national campaign because he doesn’t have the money,” said Denice Reiter, 47, a Bonita Springs homemaker, who heard San­torum speak at at her church. “I’m in a quandary. Here I am supporting Santorum, but I voted for Gingrich, because he is spunkier.”

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

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The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

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