The Not-Romney Candidates Look Ahead to South Carolina

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum arrives at an evening campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January, 9, 2012.

In the days before the Iowa caucus, Rick Santorum had a decision to make. Spiking in the polls and positioned for a top-three result, Santorum could try to ride the wave into New Hampshire, where legions of free media awaited, and hope a second consecutive strong finish would convince conservatives to unite around him as the consensus non-Romney candidate. Or he could decamp immediately for South Carolina, a state whose evangelical electorate was admittedly a better match for Santorum’s social conservatism.

Like Mike Huckabee, Santorum chose the former. Now he will enter South Carolina weakened, his momentum lessened by a lackluster fifth-place finish in the Granite State, where Santorum weathered a series of skirmishes with hostile protesters that muddled his message and exposed his ragged organization.

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Despite the setback, Santorum says he is poised to make a splash in the Palmetto State. He won the only statewide straw poll last spring, and he’ll have some $3 million in the bank to blanket the airwaves with ads. His blueprint to become the conservative alternative to Romney begins with a top finish in South Carolina. “We have to finish really well there,” he said on Monday. “Over time–it’s not going to be this primary or the next, but we’ll have several races down the road, this field will narrow–it’ll be a one-on-one race, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, and we’ll win this race.” South Carolina is where the winnowing starts.

The Palmetto State is do-or-die territory not just for Santorum, but also for Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, the other two candidates jockeying for support from the conservative base. Both Gingrich and Perry are making their last stands in South Carolina, as each vies to emerge as the favored choice of the state’s activist base. Their mutual desperation sets up a scenario in which the trio will train their ammunition not just on Mitt Romney, whom all three whacked Monday, but also on each other. “It’s gonna be bloody,” says a Santorum adviser, who acknowledges the swiping among Santorum, Perry and Gingrich may intensify as the race heads south.

Ron Paul, whose strong second-place New Hampshire finish is keeping him competitive, will also be in the mix. South Carolina is the last state he plans to contest in January—he’ll forgo Florida’s expensive primary—and his campaign plans to make its mark in the Palmetto State. Internal polling shows Paul as the second-choice for a plurality of Gingrich and Santorum supporters there, and the candidate will be going after them aggressively. His campaign started airing an ad on Monday that takes aim at Santorum’s “record of duplicity on issues such as spending – including raising the debt ceiling – and insider lobbying,” and aides say Paul will continue to call out Gingrich’s “serial hypocrisy.” “It’s a blood sport everywhere,” campaign manager Jesse Benton says. “We’re ready for it. We’ve got broad shoulders.”

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Meanwhile, Santorum’s aides say they have no plans to go negative. In fact, they profess they have no new tricks up their sleeves at all. That’s not hard to believe: Santorum has a skeletal staff, refusing to hire even a pollster, and despite the influx of cash over the past week – his $3 million haul far outpaced his entire total in 2011 – has been stingy about opening the purse-strings. He is committed to sticking with the heavy retail schedule that spurred his charge in Iowa. “We’re pretty excited to get down to South Carolina, where he’s spent a lot of time,” says strategist John Brabender. “We already have an organization down there. And we finally have real resources to spend.”

For now, these ads will spotlight Santorum’s record, his large family and his commitment to conservative principles. And he’ll wait to see if his rivals begin to hit him. In recent days, Santorum has stepped up his attacks on Mitt Romney, warning New Hampshire residents that nominating moderate who backed a health-care mandate and waffled on social issues snatches away the party’s best lines of attacks in the general election. Voters are looking for “somebody who can make a strong contrast,” Santorum says, “who has a record of being a strong, courageous, conviction conservative and can make a difference in energizing the conservative base of the party…as well as reach out in those tough, blue-collar manufacturing states…I’m the one with a track record of winning in those states.”