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McCain hits Santorum, as Romney campaign flies south

With five days until New Hampshire voters go to the polls, Mitt Romney had just one brief morning event in the state before heading to South Carolina, leaving his other closest rivals with a captive audience. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

CHARLESTON, S.C.-- Mitt Romney almost never names his GOP rivals on the stump, even when drawing implicit contrasts with them, and today's rally with some 500 supporters in Charleston was no exception. With friends like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who endorsed the Massachusetts governor Wednesday, he doesn't have to. 

"Senator Santorum and I have a strong disagreement. A strong disagreement; that he believed that earmark and pork barrel projects were good for America. I think it's wrong for America," McCain said, to rising applause from the crowd. "And so does Sen. DeMint, and so does Sen. Lindsey Graham, who have been staunch fighters against earmark and pork barrel spending, and I know you're proud of them."


McCain's criticism followed the same line of attack deployed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who tried unsuccessfully to blunt Santorum's surge in Iowa by labeling the former Pennsylvania senator a "prolific earmarker" and condemning him for loading up senate bills with "Pennsylvania pork." Both McCain and Perry referred to earmarks as a "gateway drug," to corruption.  

McCain joined Romney, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for the first time Thursday in the Palmetto state, after a trio of appearances together in New Hampshire yesterday and earlier today. The 2008 primary winner was warmly received here -- and his support could help Romney in the state, where many analysts believe Romney would need to follow a similar approach to McCain's four years ago: hope the social conservative vote splinters, and claim victory with a plurality in the center.

Romney and McCain will campaign together Friday in two counties McCain carried in 2008 -- Charleston and Horry -- and where his brand is likely to remain strong. Both counties have heavily military presence, and plenty of retirees and transplants.

Voters like Barbara Johnson, a retired former health department worker, represent that sweet spot for Romney. A registered Democrat and a transplanted New Yorker, Johnson said she and her husband both voted for McCain in 2008, and would support Romney this cycle because she felt he was fiscally conservative, but socially more moderate than the other contenders.

"I voted for McCain last time. I think we need more conservative views fiscally, and we need, we need someone who knows how to cut the deficit and cut the budget and make it run within means, the same way that we do with our family," Johnson told NBC News. "We need jobs and smaller government."

But to win here, Romney will still have to make deeper inroads with Tea Party supporters, whom a recent NBC poll found overwhelmingly supported Gingrich instead of him, or find many more voters like Mrs. Johnson. In the December NBC/Marist poll of likely South Carolina voters -- after the Haley endorsement, but before McCain signed on -- Romney trailed Gingrich here by 19 points.