Rick Santorum looked Wednesday to establish himself as the top conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, one day after jolting the Republican presidential race by coming within eight votes of winning the Iowa caucuses.
Romney barely defeated Santorum in Iowa, where the party held its first contest in the race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama. Until recently, Santorum had been polling in the low single-digits and was seen as having little hope of being a top contender.
Romney's win helped solidify his standing as front-runner going into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, where he is heavily favored. But Romney has not been able to raise his support beyond the 25 percent level in national opinion polls. He won just under 25 percent of the vote in Iowa.
Some Republicans see Romney, a former governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts, as insufficiently conservative on abortion, health care and other issues. As other conservative candidates drop out, that could create an opening for Santorum, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage.
The Republican field narrowed some Wednesday with congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race after last-place showing among active candidates in Iowa.
But Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has significant hurdles to climb if he hopes to prove that he is not the latest in a series of challengers who briefly topped polls only to fade quickly — like Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. After hinting that he might drop out, Perry announced Wednesday he would stay in the race. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses in hopes of making his mark in next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary.
It will be difficult for Santorum to recreate his success in Iowa, where he had campaigned almost nonstop for months. Santorum has only a skeleton staff in other states and has very little money.
Romney is much better placed in terms of campaign staff and financing. He has campaigned as the candidate best-positioned to defeat Obama. On Wednesday, he picked up the endorsement of the party's 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain.
"The time has arrived for Republicans to choose a presidential nominee, a new standard bearer who has the ability and determination to defeat President Obama," McCain said.
But there were indications that help was on the way for Santorum: He has already seen a surge in online donations, which crippled his campaign's website shortly after the Iowa results were announced. Campaign manager Mike Biundo has said the campaign's fundraising pace has tripled over the last week.
Even so, Santorum has struggled in recent months to afford basics such as airfare and rental cars. He's been largely ignored in the debates. And his lengthy record in the Senate has yet to be fully scrutinized, meaning attacks are likely.
On Wednesday he already faced questions about his statements on same-sex relationships, his support for a prescription drug benefit for seniors and his work on programs for blacks. The surging former senator from Pennsylvania tried to explain his positions — including his support of home-state spending projects known as earmarks — as many voters are looking at his record for the first time.
Mindful of the challenges, campaign aides stayed out of sight most of Wednesday as the candidate and his small team flew to New Hampshire for an evening rally.
Santorum previewed his likely pitch in an email, saying the time has come for divided conservative voters — as well as conservative, anti-tax tea party activists and so-called values voters — to embrace him.
"We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the Republican establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November," Santorum wrote. It was a clear slap at Romney and an indication that he wouldn't shirk from assailing his chief opponent as he looks to emerge as the consensus conservative candidate.
Santorum has vowed to compete in New Hampshire — where Romney has a significant advantage in polls — despite clear vulnerabilities, including that he's barely registered in surveys here this year. The electorate here also is far less conservative on social issues, which is Santorum's strength.
Perhaps his biggest weakness is that he has virtually no campaign presence on the ground in any other early voting state. In contrast, Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul both have staff and organizations in several states.
That takes money — and Santorum hasn't had it all year. He reported less than $200,000 in his campaign account at the end of the September, the most recent figure publicly available. Romney, by contrast, finished the quarter with $14.7 million.
Campaign manager Biundo said Santorum was trying to add staff. But he also cautioned that giant payrolls don't guarantee wins.
A so-called super PAC, or super political action committee, dedicated to helping Santorum could be a key to his success, or lack thereof, going forward. The group, Red, White and Blue, spent money in Iowa in the final weeks of Santorum's campaign. It can accept unlimited donations and spend freely.
Other outside groups may help as well. The leader of the political arm of Catholic Vote distributed a message to supporters Wednesday suggesting they take a second look at Santorum, a Catholic.