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Santorum Comes Out Swinging in South Carolina

10:38 AM, Jan 12, 2012 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Ridgeway, S.C.
Although a top aide to Rick Santorum says the campaign currently has no plans to run negative ads in South Carolina, Santorum himself is throwing jabs at each of his GOP rivals on the campaign trail. While speaking yesterday at a small-town cafe called Yesteryears, Santorum painted Newt Gingrich as soft on illegal immigration, Ron Paul as weak on national defense, Rick Perry as a hypocrite on earmarks, and Mitt Romney as "maybe a little better" than Barack Obama.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

"What good is it if we elect a Republican who is gonna be maybe a little better than the guy we have in there right now?" Santorum said, without identifying his target, Mitt Romney, by name. "That's a Pyrrhic victory. That's not victory at all. That's not the change that we need in America. We have big problems. We need strong, bold leadership." Later in the evening in West Columbia, he warned voters that Republicans would give up their best issue against the president--Obamacare--if Romney is the nominee. "He's the most electable because the establishment feels comfortable with him," Santorum said. "That's it."

Santorum might like to train all of his fire on Mitt Romney, but the problem for the former Pennsylvania senator heading into a potentially do-or-die election in South Carolina is that he still needs to consolidate the anti-Romney vote. And to that end, Santorum continues to draw sharp contrasts between himself and the other not-Romneys in the race. 

When the issue of immigration came up, Santorum derided "the idea that Congressman Gingrich and others have floated, that if you're here for a long time, and you worked hard, and you provided for your family, then you should be rewarded with the ability to stay here. Well if you were here and you worked hard, you broke the law." 

When asked about spending cuts, Santorum took a swipe at Ron Paul. "Fifty years ago," Santorum said, "defense made up 60 percent of the budget. It's now 20 percent. So when people tell me, like Ron Paul, that, 'Oh, defense is the problem'--well, objectively that is false.... The problem is government has gotten involved in a whole lot of other things." And when asked by a reporter about Rick Perry's claim that Santorum is an insider, Santorum shot back that "Rick Perry requested 1200 earmarks when he was governor of Texas. Rick Perry's been in politics in Texas for 25 years."

While Perry and Gingrich are locked in a bitter fight with Mitt Romney over Romney's record at Bain Capital, Santorum hasn't joined them. Instead, he uses the issue to tarnish the conservative credentials of Perry and Gingrich--comparing their attacks to Barack Obama's class-warfare rhetoric. 

"It’s this hostile rhetoric, which unfortunately--I don't want to stand here and be a defender of Mitt Romney," Santorum said at a townhall-style meeting in West Columbia last night. "But unfortunately some in our party now, even some running for president will engage in with respect to capitalism. It is bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country. Its one other thing for Republicans to join him."

Still, Santorum's economic message provides a clear, if implicit, critique of Romney. Santorum promises voters in Ridgeway that South Carolina will become a "manufacturing mecca" if his economic policies, including eliminating corporate taxes for manufacturers, are implemented. "I'm all about leveling the playing field between big guys and little guys," Santorum says. He believes that the return of manufacturers to small-town America will also mean a resurgence of small-town values. 

Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley says the campaign will likely spend between $1 million and $1.5 million on TV advertising in the week and a half leading up to the South Carolina vote. But how will Santorum focus his attacks? Will he run ads against Romney, Gingrich, or both? "We don't have any plan to do that right now," Gidley told me. "We'll see."

If Santorum isn't treating South Carolina as his last stand against Romney, it's because, contrary to conventional wisdom, he sincerely believes it isn't. "A top two finish would be absolutely super," Santorum said last night on Fox News. "We need to show that we're the candidate that is the best one to take on Mitt Romney, and eventually Barack Obama."

Gidley insists South Carolina isn't do-or-die for Santorum. "I wouldn't say it's must-win because the way the process is, it's proportional," he said, referring to new GOP rules that mean fewer states will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis. "We want to go ahead and get this race into a moderate versus conservative primary, because that's where it's going, that's where it's heading."

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