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Santorum tries to lower expectations ahead of Southern primaries

March 12, 2012|By John Hoeffel
(Win McNamee/Getty Images )

Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Stopping to shake hands with voters and grab a quick lunch of barbecued pork ribs, Rick Santorum said he did not need to win Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, downplaying his chances against Mitt Romney’s front-runner status and Newt Gingrich’s home field advantage.

“We just have to continue to do well,” he told reporters after lunch. “We’re going into Newt’s backyard and obviously Gov. Romney’s coming off a big Super Tuesday. We’ve got to come in here and do well, and I think from all the polls we’re doing very well.”

Santorum, who appears to be in a tight race with his two main competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, has been hoping a win in the two Southern states would essentially end Gingrich’s candidacy, even if he keeps on campaigning until the convention.

Gingrich, who has stressed his Southern ties in both states, moved to Georgia as a teenager and represented a congressional district that stretched to the Alabama border.

The former Pennsylvania senator said he expects to do well in upcoming states, mentioning Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Texas. “This map is looking better and better,” he said, “We feel like the map is going to start turning in our direction.”

He encouraged voters to pay no attention to the pundits and their delegate charts, which show he now trails Romney by more than 200 delegates in the race to the 1,144 needed to win. “I’d just say, folks, quit listening to these political mathematicians,” he said. “If we get what I hope, which is eventually a race that comes down to two people, we’ll beat him.”

A day after an Army staff sergeant allegedly killed at least 16 Afghani civilians, Santorum also criticized President Obama’s war policy, including his planned timeline for withdrawal.  “As I’ve said many times, the president’s plan in Afghanistan was designed not to succeed,” he said. “My feeling is if the president’s not going to commit to success, then I would certainly be open to leaving Afghanistan early. That certainly would not be my plan if I was president. I would commit to success there and would do what was necessary to be successful.”

Santorum, in a blue dress shirt, gray slacks and black cowboy boots, worked the crowded tables with his wife, Karen, at his side. About 50 people squeezed into the dimly lighted room, its walls painted black and hung with license plates and photos of University of Alabama football stars.

He had the ribs, of course, and pronounced them “absolutely awesome.”

Dreamland Bar-B-Que, a Tuscaloosa institution, opened in 1958 and was owned and run for decades by John “Big Daddy” Bishop, an enormous man who presided over the hickory fire pit. Dreamland, as these things go, is now a chain with eight outlets in three states and is no longer owned by the family. But the original location is largely unreconstructed, although sausage has been added to the menu, which used to be only pork ribs (“Ain’t Nothing Like ’em Nowhere.”) 

The restaurant sells ribs by the quarter, half or whole slab, which is about a dozen ribs, one side of a pig. A slab goes for $19.50 and comes with white bread to sop up the sauce. On a typical day, the joint sells as many as 300 slabs, but on home football game days for the nearby University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, it can sell about 1,500 and once sold 2,200.

Jamey Clements, a 46-year-old civil engineer and Republican candidate for county commissioner, came to see Santorum, but also said, “Eating here is part of it.”

Santorum, he said, shares his views on social issues and the economy. “The main thing I like about Sen. Santorum is he will tell it like it is,” he said, adding that he also appreciated his willingness to do low-key campaign stops, like eating at Dreamland, to meet voters. 

Clements likes Gingrich, too, but worries about his unpredictability. “Newt has a tendency to say some crazy things,” he said, noting his now-infamous conversation on the couch with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) about solving global warming. “It’s not a question of if he’s going to say or do something crazy, it’s a matter of when.”

He first started coming to Dreamland when he was at the University of Alabama in the 1980s. He recalled that the sign prohibiting profanity was rigorously enforced. “It was more like going to someone’s house and eating dinner with them,” he said. But he noted that the restaurant, which is still in the same building, “was very similar to what it used to be.”

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