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Gingrich, Santorum, Perry make case to S.C. conservatives

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum made the case as to why each of them is the best conservative pick for the Republican nomination on this morning’s news shows, slamming frontrunner Mitt Romney for overseeing health reform in Massachusetts and his moderate record as governor.

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Gingrich, second to Romney in many South Carolina polls, called himself a “clear Reagan conservative” who stands a better chance of defeating President Obama in November than Romney, “who comes out of the Massachusetts moderate background.”

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As a conservative from Georgia, Gingrich made the argument that he better suits South Carolina Republicans than anyone else in the field and predicts he will win Saturday’s primary. He criticized Romney for running for president by referring vaguely to this record but not being willing to answer questions when it’s examined in detail.

“What Republicans don’t want to do is nominate someone who collapses in September under the weight of Barack Obama,” someone who can’t debate Obama, can’t take the heat, can’t answer questions, Gingrich said.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Gingrich defended his attack ads on Romney’s record at Bain while acknowledging that he himself is no financial expert.

“The questions being raised are real,” he said. “They’re being raised by a lot of folks other than Newt Gingrich and I think Mitt Romney ought to answer the questions … This is part of the sorting-out process of the campaign.”

Gingrich affirmed that he is “totally committed to free enterprise,” and particularly supports small businesses and start ups. He praised Romney as a tough, smart businessman, but “that doesn’t mean he should be businessman of the year” given questions about his character.

“I’m not an expert in this kind of financial stuff, but I do think if you’re going to run for president and going to base a large part of your claim on your business experience,” Gingrich said, “then you have to expect people to ask you to open up your books and prove it. You can’t just run on claims.”

He also urged Romney to release his tax records, as Gingrich said he plans to do on Thursday.

“The country deserves accountability and they deserve transparency,” Gingrich said. “These are big issues and not issues you can hide from.”

Gingrich said if he loses South Carolina, he would have to reassess his campaign. That’s why conservatives should realize, he said, that “to vote for anybody else besides Gingrich will help Romney win South Carolina.”

South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott and Senator Lindsey Graham also said on “Meet the Press” that other candidates would have a hard time advancing if Romney takes South Carolina. The evangelical vote will be critical, Scott said, with three candidates actively vying for it.

“Without any question that works to the Romney campaign’s benefit,” Scott said. “That splintered vote will probably have a major impact on Saturday…If Romney wins South Carolina, I think the game’s over. This is the last stand for many candidates.”

Santorum, who yesterday received the backing of a group of about 150 national evangelical leaders meeting over the weekend at a Texas ranch, pitched himself as the non-establishment candidate who’s been a reformer, “who wasn’t part of the club.”

“That’s a threat to the establishment,” he said on “Face the Nation.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, too, tried to make his case on CNN’s “State of the Union” as “the most consistent social and fiscal conservative in this race.” In response to his being passed over in his own backyard for the national evangelical endorsement, Perry brushed off the setback. “Our focus is on the people of South Carolina,” he said.

Asked whether he was hurt, Perry said, “I’ve been in this business long enough to understand that you’re not going to get everyone to love you. I understand how this process works. It’s not organizations that elect. It’s the people, and we’re going directly to the people. If you’re worried about getting your feelings hurt, you might not want to get into the business of politics to start with.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.
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