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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Santorum gets head start in final round of Iowa campaigning

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum celebrated after he shot a bird during a hunt in Adel, Iowa.

ADEL, Iowa — Rick Santorum, who has logged more time in the streets and shops of Iowa than any other Republican presidential candidate, took to the Hawkeye State’s fields yesterday to underscore his conservative credentials and to live up to that state’s nickname.

Dressed in blaze orange, with a baseball cap stitched with the letters NRA for National Rifle Association, and toting a shotgun, the former Pennsylvania senator joined a pheasant hunt with conservative US Representative Steve King, whose endorsement could sway votes in next week’s Iowa caucuses.

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Santorum had Iowa to himself yesterday, a day before rivals begin descending on the first-in-the-nation voting state for the final week of campaigning. Santorum, like such candidates as Representative Michelle Bachmann and Governor Rick Perry of Texas, are looking to Iowa voters to provide a boost as they jockey to become the chief conservative rival to Mitt Romney.

Conversely, a poor performance in next week’s caucuses by any of those three candidates could begin the process of winnowing the field.

Perry and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, are expected to return today to launch bus tours. Romney is flying in about dinnertime after stops in New Hampshire.

Representative Ron Paul, a conservative from Texas who has been leading in some recent Iowa polls, was due at the end of the week, while Bachmann was returning after a trip home to Minnesota. Santorum used the hunt to talk about conservative issues, including gun rights.

“I make the argument that there’s nobody who’s done more for the Second Amendment and been stronger on that issue than I have,’’ said Santorum, who, according to his son, bagged at least four birds.

More specifically, he warned that reelecting President Obama could weaken gun rights. He cited the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, which struck down portions of the nation capital’s strict gun control laws.

“If you read the dissent in Heller, no gun owner should feel comfortable this is a secure constitutional right according to this Supreme Court, and that’s why we need a good, strong Republican conservative who understands what it means to appoint and confirm solid judges and justices,’’ Santorum said.

On a pair of local issues that have cropped up late in the caucus campaign, Santorum dismissed criticism of his endorsement last week by conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats.

Santorum revealed last week that Vander Plaats, president of the conservative group the Family Leader, asked for money in connection with his endorsement. Yesterday, the former senator dismissed suggestions of any “pay-to-play’’ deal.

He said Vander Plaats simply broached the subject of a contribution to promote the eventual endorsement, a request Santorum labeled as “benign.’’

Santorum added: “I think some people who did not get the endorsement are trying to stir the pot to make it what it isn’t. . . . If you’re going to endorse somebody, you want to make sure that your endorsement is out there among the people that follow you as supporters of his. That’s all he was saying to me; I didn’t think anything of it.’’

Although Santorum stood as his hunting partner, King, continued to withhold his endorsement. King said he is still unsure if he will endorse any candidate. — GLEN JOHNSON

Romney ad underscores his conservative stances

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is taking to the airwaves to try to make a salient point to undecided voters in Iowa: He is a conservative.

A new television ad, titled “Conservative Agenda,’’ shows Romney speaking on the stump and meeting with voters, as he makes a series of commitments. “I am going to do something to government. I’m going to make it ‘simpler, and smaller, and smarter,’ ’’ Romney says. “Getting rid of programs, turning programs back to states, and finally making government itself more efficient.’’

Romney pledges to repeal President Obama’s health care overhaul and balance the federal budget.

The ad comes as Romney tries to counter the perception among some conservative Republican voters that he is too moderate. — SHIRA SCHOENBERG

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