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Santorum plants a flag in South Carolina

 

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Touching down in the Palmetto State for just a few hours, Rick Santorum said he wanted to get a head start on campaigning here before candidates start flooding the state on January 11th.

“I wanted to plant the flag here before New Hampshire,” Santorum told reporters before his rally at Chiefs sports bar here, where more than 200 supporters greeted him with a hero’s welcome of whooping and applause.

Santorum’s whirlwind afternoon, capped off with an endorsement from influential conservative leader Gary Bauer, was a marked departure from his trips here before he picked up steam in Iowa, said former Rep. Gresham Barrett, Santorum’s South Carolina chair.

“For the first six months, ten months, we would do an event and we’d have one person, two people, ten, you know, 25 was fantastic,” Barrett told NBC News.

“You feed off this kind of excitement and it’s indicative of what we saw in Iowa, what we’re seeing in New Hampshire and I believe how we’re going to do in South Carolina.”

Santorum made a point to emphasize the centrality of South Carolina – which has picked every Republican nominee since 1980 – to his electoral prospects.

“We cannot win without you,” he told the crowd at Chiefs, asking them to give him a win similar to that which propelled Ronald Reagan to the nomination in 1980, after he lost New Hampshire to George H.W. Bush.

“Ronald Reagan won South Carolina because South Carolina said to the country, we want stark contrasts,” Santorum said. “South Carolina can deliver that message and if you do, I guarantee you that we will have the horses available to go and run this table and you will keep your record intact.”

Santorum, who navigated the crowd with his arm around his wife Karen, added that his whole family would be in South Carolina for the run-up to the vote – even his toddler daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder.

“We knew that breathing some of this free air here in South Carolina would be good for her lungs,” Santorum said. “This is the first state where we’ve put everybody in place. We are going to crisscross this state between now and January 21st.”

In addition to his family, Santorum will have influential Christian conservative leader Gary Bauer in his corner. Bauer, a 2000 presidential candidate who served in both Reagan administrations, praised Santorum as “the next Ronald Reagan” while introducing him at Stax restaurant here.

“For me, Ronald Reagan has always defined what the right political prescription was for the United States,” Bauer said. “As I listened to [Santorum], I realized the next Ronald Reagan had been standing in front of me all this time and I hadn’t been paying attention.”

While Santorum said he was humbled to be compared to the conservative icon, he added that Bauer was qualified to make such a statement.

“I shrink from that to be compared with Ronald Reagan,” he said before adding, “If Gary Bauer says this is the Reagan conservative, he knows better than anyone else in this country who the Reagan conservative is.”

Santorum also urged the crowd at Stax, mostly Republicans from Greenville County, a socially conservative part of the state’s Upstate region (which had the highest voter turnout in 2008), to choose their nominee wisely.

“South Carolina has to speak clearly, particularly in the Upstate, that we do not need just a little better than what we have now; we need big change in Washington D.C.,” he said.

While Santorum urged South Carolina to vote with one voice, some influential conservatives like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention have recently warned that too many candidates vying for the “anti-Romney” mantle might prevent South Carolina from, as Santorum put it, speaking clearly.

Bauer, however, said he would not join in with Land to encourage second-tier candidates to drop out of the race now so that conservatives could coalesce around one candidate – even if it boosted Santorum.

“I ran myself in 2000, I know what it feels like as a candidate when you’re working really hard and somebody suggests you drop out of the race so I’m not going to do that. But I do think it will naturally happen over time and probably sooner rather than later,” Bauer told NBC.

When Santorum was asked, however, whether other candidates need to drop out of the race to make room for him, he warmed, half-jokingly, to the notion. “It would be nice if everybody did,” he said as reporters chuckled. “I mean, sure, if everybody drops out and says, ‘yeah, Rick’s the guy,’ I’d take  it.”

But until that happens, Santorum will still have to contend with current frontrunner Mitt Romney, whom Santorum prodded briefly at the NBC/Facebook debate over the former Massachusetts governor’s decision not to run for re-election.

When asked by NBC News why he seemed to back off after that singular jab against Romney, Santorum responded, “I don’t go in there to beat up on another candidate.”

That didn’t stop him, however, from touting his anti-Romney offensive during his rally at Chiefs.

“I still have some blood on my sleeve from Mitt Romney after that debate,” Santorum said as the crowd burst into cheers.