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Confident Romney draws contrast with surging Santorum

ATLANTC, Iowa - With only days to go until the GOP primary contest finally begins in earnest, a new set of polling has brought forth a new anti-Romney candidate in the race, and today for the first time, Mitt Romney was asked by reporters to draw contrast between himself, and the surging former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Keeping with his tradition of rarely attacking his Republican rivals directly, Romney reminded the press that Santorum endorsed him in 2008, and that the former Pennsylvania congressman and senator spent the majority of his career in Washington.

"I don't think I’ve spent a lot of time trying to describe differences on policy. But instead I focused on the things I believe and the choices that Americans have to make. Senator Santorum was kind enough to endorse me last time around. I appreciate that. And we’ve been friends," Romney said.  "I can tell you that our backgrounds are quite different. Like Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum has spent his career in government, in Washington, nothing wrong with that, but it is a very different background than I have and I think the people of this country recognize that with our economy as the major issue we face right now that it would be helpful to have someone who understands the economy firsthand."

Asked later whether he or Santorum, who has ridden a wave of evangelical and social conservative support to third place in the latest Des Moines Register polling, was the more conservative, Romney again chose not to attack Santorum directly, but to speak about his own record, concluding:

"I'll let people make their own assessment of our respective records, but I'm a conservative. I'm proud to be a conservative businessman, and I think what distinguishes me from the others in the field is that I understand the economy first hand, having lived in it. And I look forward to a spirited campaign"

The questions about Santorum came at the end of a chaotic retail campaign event, in which more than 75 journalists from local, national and international media overwhelmed campaign and restaurant staff at The Family Table restaurant in Atlantic, Iowa, spilling into the kitchen and out onto the street as space in the restaurant disappeared. The pack underscored Romney's recent reclamation of frontrunner status here, but also prevented him from talking to more than a few dozen voters, who clung to their tables and bar stools amid the crush and trample of camera crews and notepad-wielding reporters.

While working the room after his brief remarks, Romney was asked to respond to the latest poll numbers (by a voter or a journalist, it was impossible to tell) that have him leading here by a narrow margin, 24 percent to 22 percent over Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.

"I think it's really hard for pollsters to know exactly who is going to come out and who is not, but it's encouraging," Romney said. "I'm pleased that we're seeing the kind of crowds we're seeing and the kind of enthusiasm, so it's encouraging."

Another encouraging sign for Romney? His fourth quarter fundraising. Asked to predict his total haul for the final three months of the year -- a dollar amount described to NBC by a Romney campaign fundraiser last week as "phenomenal," -- the candidate sounded confident.

"We’ll do better this quarter than any quarter so far but I don’t have a final figure for you and when we do we’ll let you know," he said.