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Gingrich, Santorum target conservative voters — and each other

As Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum fight in South Carolina to become the socially conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, their mutual admiration has given way to campaign scuffling.

January 18, 2012|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Newt Gingrich campaigns recently with his wife, Callista, in Columbia, S.C. On Tuesday, he tried to contrast himself with rival Rick Santorum, saying: Theres no evidence that he could put together a national majority. I actually know how to design a national campaign."
Newt Gingrich campaigns recently with his wife, Callista, in Columbia,… (Matt Rourke, Associated…)

Reporting from Florence, S.C. — As Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battle to emerge as the socially conservative alternative to GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, they have largely scrapped with kid gloves — expressing their admiration for each other while arguing that their respective resumes and skill sets make them the best Republican to take on President Obama.

On Tuesday, four days before this state holds a primary that could essentially end one or both of their presidential bids, those gloves came off.

Asked to differentiate himself from his rival, Gingrich noted that Santorum lost his last Senate reelection race by the "largest margin in the history of Pennsylvania," which the former House speaker contrasted with his own history of electoral successes, notably engineering the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.

"There's no evidence that he could put together a national majority," Gingrich told reporters after a town hall meeting in Florence. "I actually know how to design a national campaign. I actually know how to set up a conservative alternative to Obama in a way that will be very, very effective and very strategic. And I don't think Santorum can do any of it."

Santorum, speaking at a business forum in South Carolina's capital, Columbia, said Gingrich's proposal to offer young people a personal investment account with a government backstop as an alternative to traditional Social Security illustrated his "irresponsible" nature.

"Too bold and not predictable, not someone you can rely upon with good, solid ideas, throwing lots of ideas out there, not well thought out, not responsive," Santorum said. The former senator added that he, on the other hand, was "someone who has bold ideas, thinks through these things, puts forward plans that are going to make a difference for the country."

The slights marked a change in tone. Until now, Gingrich and Santorum have largely been members of a mutual admiration society, with Santorum saying he used to listen to tapes of Gingrich to get "schooled" for his first run for federal office.

But the student may have overtaken the master. Santorum was a handful of votes short of winning the Iowa caucuses, where Gingrich finished fourth. In New Hampshire, they essentially tied for fourth. That makes Saturday's South Carolina primary all the more crucial, if one of them can corral the state's socially conservative voters — a test both men as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry recognize.

"If you consolidate the three conservative candidates, we clearly would have a huge margin over Romney. The challenge to me is to convince conservatives to come home and have a single candidate on Saturday," Gingrich said.

Perry has essentially become an afterthought in the race. Both Gingrich and Santorum have indicated they will continue to Florida, site of the next primary 10 days later, though it's unclear how either could afford to compete in a state where politics is so reliant on advertising in expensive media markets.

That's what makes South Carolina so vital. Polling shows Gingrich in second place, trailing Romney by double digits. But Santorum clearly has momentum, prompting many to wonder whether he can repeat what he did in the final days in Iowa.

Gingrich dismissed such thoughts and said that although he would never advise another candidate to drop out, he would be "delighted" if Santorum or Perry did to help solidify the conservative cause.

Santorum was not pleased.

"I'm not into political games or political deals," he said when asked about the comment in Lexington. "We need someone who is solid, someone who's predictable in the sense that they know what they believe in."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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