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Santorum has steep climb in S.C.

Races to build up organization, defend record

David Goldman/Associated Press

Rick Santorum focused nearly all of his attention in recent months on Iowa, and his campaign is now working to fortify a grass-roots network in South Carolina.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Rick Santorum faces a double-barreled challenge in South Carolina: set up a strong campaign organization while effectively answering an expected onslaught of attacks on his fiscal record.

And do it with just over a week left to the primary.

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“Please pray for us,’’ Santorum recently told an audience in Greenville. “It’s a tough battle every day out there. And we need that hedge of protection.’’

The former Pennsylvania senator is fighting to consolidate a fractured conservative Republican base in hopes of emerging as the single biggest threat to GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney - and to notch his first victory in a state where for decades Republicans have voted for the party’s eventual nominee.

It will not be easy. And not just because Santorum is fighting with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for the support of evangelical voters.

Santorum, popular with social conservatives who fill this state, had focused nearly all of his attention in recent months on Iowa. That means he enters the South Carolina campaign with a weaker organization here than some of his rivals and, certainly, Romney.

So Santorum’s team has spent the past week working to fortify a grass-roots network statewide, built upon inroads he made over the past year during trips to the state’s right-leaning upstate region, where he is banking on a big turnout.

Despite his smaller staff, he is making an earnest effort at turning out voters statewide. He has visited the state 26 times, has volunteer organizations in 42 of 46 counties, and has campaign offices in five cities, including conservative Greenville and Spartanburg in the evangelical-heavy north.

His South Carolina campaign is tied largely to the state’s influential evangelical conservative base, much as it was in Iowa. And advisers are trying to ensure the backing of influential Christian pastors, particularly those along the Interstate 85 industrial corridor between Greenville and Spartanburg.

Both Santorum and his allies started running heavy loads of advertising this week to get his message out - and get ahead of criticism of his past political stances.

Parts of Santorum’s record make some fiscal conservatives cringe: He voted for federal spending on home-state projects known as earmarks, for raising the debt ceiling, and against limiting organized labor’s influence.

The votes could hurt Santorum in the state’s eastern coastal regions, where fiscal and economic issues trump cultural ones.

So Santorum has started wielding a preemptive answer to attacks on his conservative credentials.

“I’m proud of my record. It’s not perfect. Anyone here perfect?’’ Santorum told South Carolina Republicans during a quick weekend visit to the state, casting himself as the most reliable conservative in the race. “It’s not perfect, but it’s solid.’’

In a sign of what’s to come, Santorum was the target of twin attacks this week.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, let loose a 30-second TV ad calling Santorum a “fraud’’ and labeling Santorum’s time in Congress as “a record of betrayal.’’

Governor Rick Perry of Texas was first to attack Santorum on earmarks before the Iowa caucuses, but with little effect.

Santorum has defended his votes for such projects, saying the money added up to a fraction of federal spending.

“We are focused on a little bit, and we’re ignoring the elephant in the room,’’ he said yesterday in Hilton Head. He argued for nominating a candidate who can draw a clear contrast with President Obama.

Romney isn’t the one, Santorum said.

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