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Politics

Santorum, Paul looks past Nevada caucuses

MONTROSE, Colo. (AP) — Republican Rick Santorum said Saturday he wants to ‘‘endanger’’ rival Newt Gingrich while presidential rival Ron Paul claimed ‘‘the American people are waking up,’’ both campaigning outside Nevada as that state began its GOP caucuses.

Santorum and Paul both looked beyond Nevada’s causes and eyed contests further down the nominating calendar, signaling the results were unlikely to change their strategy in a race that seemed to have become a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Gingrich.

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In recent days Santorum has sharpened his criticism of Gingrich, whose fortunes seemed to be falling as he headed toward another setback in Nevada with no obvious state coming up for him to regain his footing. Santorum’s strategy has been to outlast Gingrich and emerge as the eventual alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Opening his day, Santorum told Republicans on Colorado’s Western Slope that Washington has gone too far in its environmental policies, especially here in the West. He said over-reaching environmental regulators were trampling on ranchers with a Washington-knows-best approach.

‘‘’We’ll make sure that you don’t do something to scar the land or endanger a newt,’’’ Santorum said. ‘‘No, not that Newt. I want to endanger that Newt. That’s a different story.’’

Santorum has increased his attacks on Gingrich in recent weeks, piggybacking on criticism from Romney’s allies. Gingrich, for his part, dug in like Santorum and Paul and offered no signs the results of Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada would push any of them to exit.

Santorum, declared the winner of Iowa’s leadoff caucuses last month but likely to face a fourth consecutive loss Saturday in Nevada, planned to head from Colorado to Minnesota for a busy day on Sunday.

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Paul, too, was campaigning in Minnesota, another state that meets Tuesday for the latest round of GOP contests that seem to shuffle the race on a regular basis.

Speaking before a few hundred people at a Rochester high school, Paul said his economic ideas are penetrating and a strong showing in Minnesota and other upcoming states will send a strong signal that Americans are fed up with tepid change and government as it is.

‘‘The one thing that is on our side is the American people are waking up,’’ he said in a speech frequently interrupted by applause and standing ovations.

Yet Paul was keeping close tabs on Nevada, where he placed second in 2008 behind Romney. The Texas congressman is hoping for an outright win this time. Advisers believe the state’s independent, live-and-let-live ethos is receptive to Paul’s libertarian message and that his band of diehard supporters can be counted on to show up at the caucuses.

Paul’s campaign has spent $350,000 on television ads in Nevada, just behind Romney who’s spent $371,000, according to the Smart Media Group which tracks political advertising. Newt Gingrich’s campaign did not advertise at all on television in Nevada and Santorum placed only a $12,000 cable buy.

Aboard Santorum’s plane en route to Denver, the former senator got his first results from the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

‘‘We’re tied with Romney in Searchlight, Nevada. That may be the highlight of our day,’’ Santorum told reporters as his plane landed in Denver. ‘‘Please, emphasize ‘may.’’’

Santorum told Republicans on the Western Slope that Colorado was ‘‘a wide-open state’’ and urged voters to support him in Tuesday’s upcoming contest.

‘‘This isn’t a state where someone has a natural advantage,’’ Santorum said in Montrose, before flying on to events in Loveland and Greeley. ‘‘No one can stake a claim and say, ‘He’s going to win this state.’ This is a wide-open race and you have an opportunity to reset this race.’’

Santorum has vowed to continue his race until the Republicans meet in Tampa for their nominating contest, and Paul has shown no interest in shutting down his libertarian-leaning campaign that still draws enthusiastic crowds of fervent supporters.

Romney and Gingrich, meanwhile, were fighting in Nevada for the first contest in the West. The tone of the campaign had turned caustic in recent days, all the while Santorum built giant crowds. He spent Friday in Missouri, which has also has a primary Tuesday that lacks Gingrich’s name on the ballot and does not award delegates.

Santorum also sought to undercut Romney’s argument he is most electable because he has the most money and strongest organization. Santorum, who raised $1 million online in recent days, said no one will be able to go tit-for-tat with President Barack Obama.

‘‘Folks, he’s not going to have the most money in the general election,’’ he said. ‘‘Barack Obama’s going to have more money. .... (Romney) is going to be outspent badly. Any Republican will be.’’

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Bakst reported from Rochester, Minn. Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in Nevada contributed to this report.

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