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Conservative forum vital for GOP rivals today

Drawings of Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul were on display at a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington yesterday. Drawings of Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul were on display at a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington yesterday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
By Christopher Rowland
Globe Staff / February 10, 2012
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WASHINGTON - Rick Santorum’s three-state sweep this week has set the stage for a duel with Newt Gingrich over who can claim the title of conservative champion and lead alternative to Mitt Romney in the GOP nominating contest.

Their struggle will be played out in part today in highly anticipated, individual appearances before the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention in the nation’s capital. Romney also will take a turn on the convention stage as he seeks to demonstrate to the gathered conservatives that he can speak forcefully for their values.

Santorum’s stunning set of victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado on Tuesday once again altered the dynamics of the primary and were the number-one topic at the CPAC opening session yesterday. Santorum had been relegated to lower-tier status during the Florida contest last week, as Gingrich claimed the mantle of strongest challenger to Romney.

Now the former Pennsylvania senator is looking to elbow Gingrich aside. He can count on an enthusiastic crowd for his speech today, if the abundance of his blue stickers on suit lapels around the CPAC conference hall was any indication.

“He’s the underdog, and now we have the kind of enthusiasm and support that seemed impossible back in June and July,’’ said Doug Fox, a Santorum volunteer from Glendale, Calif.

The conservative, social-values message Santorum carries is feeding an appetite for authenticity, he added.

“You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but at least you can believe him,’’ Fox said. “He’s not scripted, teleprompted, or programmed.’’

Gingrich has struggled since his loss to Romney in Florida, and Santorum’s sudden ascendancy reinforces the notion that the former House speaker has slumped and is fighting to regain his footing. He did not campaign publicly yesterday, but in Ohio on Wednesday, Gingrich made it clear that he intends to compete strongly in the Super Tuesday contests on March 6. He is hoping to do well in several delegate-rich states, including his native Georgia, Tennessee, and Ohio.

His strategy raises the possibility that he and Santorum will divide regions, with Gingrich picking up most of his strength in the South and Santorum in the Midwest and Plains states. The prospect of mixed verdicts throughout March is enhanced by the proportional allocation of delegates for many of the states, something that is new in Republican primary elections.

It is likely neither Santorum nor Gingrich will land a knock-out blow on Super Tuesday that would establish one or the other as the exclusive Romney alternative, said Linda Fowler, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College.

“What’s happening is the party is really struggling with its identity right now, and no one of these candidates seems to have the magic formula to put everything together and shut things down early,’’ she said.

“The desire to beat Romney isn’t sufficiently big so that opponents can consolidate around a single candidate,’’ added James McCann, a political science professor from Purdue University.

Meanwhile, the candidates and their surrogates continue to criticize Romney as too liberal or moderate to represent the party. Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a former GOP presidential candidate who has endorsed Gingrich, made no reference to the former House speaker when he spoke to CPAC attendees yesterday. Instead, he delivered veiled criticism of Romney.

“We do the American people no great service if we replace the current embodiment of big government with a lukewarm version of the same,’’ said Perry.

Another prominent speaker, social conservative Ralph Reed, gave Santorum high marks for his strong credentials and clear message while suggesting the silver lining in a drawn-out multicandidate race. Reed drew cheers when he mentioned Santorum’s recent strong showing.

This week Romney has appeared intent on lumping his two main competitors together. He painted both Santorum and Gingrich as Washington insiders on Wednesday and accused them of wasting taxpayer money on earmarks. Santorum defended himself yesterday, saying he set aside congressional expenditures for worthy health care and defense projects.

“There are good earmarks and bad earmarks,’’ he told reporters.

That caused Romney’s campaign to issue a press release, asking if Santorum considered earmarks for an infamous “bridge to nowhere’’ in Alaska and a polar-bear exhibit he supported to be good earmarks.

The turbulence in the race has set CPAC abuzz, with convention-goers speculating about the meaning of the Santorum surge.

While few thought Romney could be derailed soon, Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul supporters hoped for a brokered convention this summer where Tea Party backers and Christian evangelicals could exert a strong influence on the party.

Although they do not have the same campaign riches as Romney, Santorum and Gingrich each have wealthy backers who have poured huge sums into the super PACs that support them - evangelical millionaire Foster Friess behind Santorum, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson behind Gingrich.

Santorum’s sweep over Romney and Gingrich on Tuesday illustrates dissatisfaction with Romney and demand for a clearer conservative voice, said conservative activist Ken Hoagland, chairman of Restore America’s Voice Foundation.

“The conservative voters are not going to be fooled by candidates who will say anything,’’ said Hoagland. “They are deciding who is the real deal. We’re just not sure who the real deal is.’’

Even Romney loyalists said they are looking for greater clarity and passion in his defense of core values such as cutting deficits. Richard Mgrdechian, president of a small record label, said he believes Romney will prevail. But Santorum’s newfound strength exposes Romney’s weaknesses, he added.

“It’s a matter of not being assertive enough,’’ Mgrdechian said. “Rather than test the wind - Romney’s been doing that too much - he needs to say, ‘This is what I think and why.’ Remember, Ronald Reagan was a leader first and a politician second.’’

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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