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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?

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Now, not only must Romney win New Hampshire but he must match the expectation that he will win by a substantial margin. Currently, polls show him ahead of his nearest rival, Paul, by more than 20 points. Time is short, and pre-Iowa polls show Santorum at just 4 percent in New Hampshire. But if Santorum can catch on among conservatives there, he could cut into Romney’s margin. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who skipped Iowa and has staked his campaign in New Hampshire, could also eat away at Romney’s moderate base over the coming week. Mr. Huntsman is averaging almost 11 percent in New Hampshire polls. 

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Four years ago, the Southern Mr. Huckabee did not translate well in New Hampshire. But Santorum, from Pennsylvania, could be a different story. The question is whether he can make himself well-enough known in just a few days. Santorum succeeded in Iowa in part by practically living there for the past several months, visiting all 99 counties and shaking every available hand. He last visited New Hampshire in early November.

Weighing against Santorum in New Hampshire is his strong appeal as a religious conservative. Granite State Republicans are generally not inclined toward open professions of faith, overturning abortion rights, or undoing the state’s legalization of gay marriage. In addition, the state’s GOP primary is open to independents and Democrats, which could help both Romney and Paul.

But Santorum’s consistently conservative positions contrast with Romney’s changed views over the years. The Pennsylvanian also performed well in the debates, even as he had to fight for air time.

Another key figure, going forward, could be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He came in fourth in Iowa with 13 percent, after leading the polls there for a period. Mr. Gingrich failed to respond soon enough to the barrage of negative ads he sustained at the hands of Team Romney, and now he sounds prepared for payback.

In remarks to supporters Tuesday evening, he said he wasn’t going to “go out and run nasty ads,” but then suggested a novel definition of negativity.

“I do reserve the right to tell the truth,” a visibly irritated Gingrich said. “And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on [Romney's] record than it is on politics.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also pledged to stay in the race, after a sixth-place showing in Iowa, her birthplace. Congresswoman Bachmann won only 5 percent of the caucus vote, a major comedown from her Iowa straw poll victory last August.

After New Hampshire, the next big tests will come in the South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31) primaries. Santorum is likely to find a positive reception in South Carolina, where social conservatives and tea partyers are strong. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has endorsed Romney, and so the primary will test her clout. Florida will present a major challenge to Santorum and his ability to organize across a large territory. Florida –the state with the fourth-largest population in the country – has multiple media markets. Competing there will be expensive.

IN PICTURES: Iowa caucus winners 

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