Why Mitt Romney is beating up on Rick Santorum

Mitt Romney and his allies are attacking Rick Santorum on the eve of three primary contests that are expected to be low-turnout – a situation that could play to Santorum's strength. 

By , Staff Writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at his Nevada caucus night victory celebration in Las Vegas, Saturday.
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A funny thing is happening on the way to Mitt Romney’s (presumed) coronation as the Republican nominee: He’s punching down at the (presumably) lowly Rick Santorum.

On Monday, Romney surrogate Tim Pawlenty had a conference call just to bash Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania.

“He clearly has been part of the big-spending establishment in Congress and in the influence-peddling industry that surrounded Congress,” said former Minnesota Governor Pawlenty, a one-time competitor for the GOP nomination.

Recommended: Election 101: Nine facts about Mitt Romney and his White House bid

Team Romney also dug into the archives and pulled out some nifty Santorum quotes praising Romney in 2008, back when he was running for the GOP nomination as the conservative alternative to John McCain.

So why go after Santorum now?

After all, Mr. Romney seems comfortably on his way to the Republican nomination. He’s won three out of five contests, including the last two – Nevada and Florida – by big margins. He’s ahead in the delegate count. And he’s the only Republican candidate with the war chest and organization to compete effectively on Super Tuesday, the 10 contests of March 6.

The answer, it appears, is that Romney isn’t taking any chances.

There are three “beauty contests” on Tuesday – the nonbinding Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, and a nonbinding primary in Missouri. Recent surveys by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in all three states show Romney strong in Colorado, but Minnesota and Missouri are a muddle. Newt Gingrich didn’t qualify for the ballot in Missouri, which makes that a three-way race among Romney, Santorum, and Ron Paul.   

All three contests are expected to be low-turnout, which gives an advantage to motivated voting blocs.  

“There are a lot of evangelical social conservatives in all three states,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “That’s the threat to Romney.”

Santorum won the first race, the Iowa caucuses, based on his strength among religious conservatives, but he has not been able to duplicate that feat since. With funds short, a strong showing in any of those states could give Santorum a little momentum – and cash – to keep going.  

No doubt delighted to be seen as a threat, the Santorum campaign is punching back against Romney.

"Does the forefather of Obamacare, advocate of the Wall Street bailouts, and proponent of job-killing climate-change regulations really want to try and lecture anyone about earmarks?” Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s national communications director, said in a statement.

On paper, the Republican nomination contest has barely started. The five states that have voted so far account for only 143 delegates, of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination. Thirty of those are “unbound,” to be assigned later. Of the remaining, Romney has 73, Gingrich has 29, Paul has eight, and Santorum has three, according to a press release issued Monday by the Republican National Committee.

With so few delegates awarded, who can blame the also-rans for dreaming? And Romney for being cautious?

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