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How GOP's rising Rick Santorum could compete through Super Tuesday

Rick Santorum lost Iowa to Mitt Romney by a mere eight votes, emerging as the conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. The question: How fast can Santorum build a national organization and war chest?

By Staff writer / January 4, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, joined by wife Karen (l.) addresses supporters at his Iowa caucus victory party on Tuesday, in Johnston, Iowa. Santorum lost Iowa to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by a mere eight votes.

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Des Moines, Iowa

Eight votes. Of the 122,255 votes cast on a frosty January evening in Iowa, that’s all that separated the winner of the state’s storied caucuses, Mitt Romney, from his surging rival, Rick Santorum.  

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In an almost eerie coincidence, Mr. Romney won nearly the same percentage of the vote, about 25 percent, as he did in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, when he lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That result reinforces questions about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to grow support among the Republican Party’s conservative base.

But aside from the photo finish, the story of the night was Mr. Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania barely had a pulse a month ago and has emerged as the conservative alternative to the more-moderate Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The question for him is whether he can quickly build a national organization and war chest to compete effectively against the well-funded and well-organized Romney.

“If Santorum can get his act together, the GOP primary could certainly go beyond Super Tuesday,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.

A shrinking field is likely to help Santorum. Late Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he was returning to Texas to reassess his campaign, a signal that he is probably about to drop out of the race. Governor Perry, who stumbled in debates after a promising start to his campaign, finished fifth in Iowa with 10 percent.

One candidate who is sure to stay in the hunt is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who finished a strong third here with 21 percent. The libertarian-leaning congressman has a devoted following, one that has grown substantially from the 10 percent he won in Iowa four years ago. His departures from mainstream Republican thought make him anathema to the Republican establishment, but party leaders will tiptoe carefully around him amid concerns he might launch a third-party candidacy that could harm the eventual GOP nominee.

The Republican nomination sweepstakes now moves to New Hampshire, which holds its primary next Tuesday. Romney is well-known there as the former governor of a neighboring state and part-time resident, and has polled well there since the start of the 2012 cycle. He should win New Hampshire comfortably. But he can take nothing for granted – especially after nearly losing to the upstart Santorum in Iowa.

After all, Romney lost New Hampshire four years ago to the Republicans’ eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain. The Arizona senator is expected to endorse Romney on Wednesday in New Hampshire, where McCain remains popular. Four years ago, there was no love lost between the former rivals, but Romney subsequently campaigned for McCain in Arizona when the senator ran for reelection in 2010.

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