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Santorum touches down in Florida

 By Andrew Rafferty, NBC News

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Rick Santorum this afternoon became the first presidential candidate to touch down in Florida after the South Carolina primary, making the case that last night's results prove conservatives do not need to coalesce around just one Republican candidate to successfully challenge Mitt Romney. 

"The inevitability of Romney has now been whipped away," Santorum said after holding a rally here in front of nearly 200 supporters. "The idea that conservatives now have to be united to beat him -- I beat him, Gingrich beat him, the only state he won is his back yard," he said. 

Making his case today after an unimpressive third-place finish in the first-in-the-south primary, Santorum continued to play up his Iowa victory, calling himself the only candidate thus far to win on neutral turf. 

"We've had three races, one in [Mitt] Romney's backyard in the state of New Hampshire.  He owns a home in New Hampshire, he campaigned there for six years, and as I said before, he was a governor of the neighboring state.  Last night, we had a race in South Carolina.

"Right across the border from where Newt Gingrich was, and pretty much his backyard and where he staked his claim," Santorum said. 

"They were able to win in their backyard.  Well, there was one race that was in nobody's backyard, there was one race where you had to go out, and on a level playing field compete, and we won that race," he said. 

But while Gingrich heads into Florida with a full head of steam after a decisive victory in South Carolina, Santorum is facing speculation about the future of his candidacy after weak finishes in the two most recent primaries and a war chest that is dwarfed when compared to his better-funded opponents.  Gingrich's win Saturday night was a blow to Santorum's case that he is in the best position to be the Romney alternative. 

Santorum continued his sharp critiques of Gingrich, who he will be competing with to win over many of Florida's most conservative Republicans. 

"When Newt was speaker of the House, well within three years, the conservatives in the House of Representatives tried to throw him out.

"In the fourth year they did. Why? Because he wasn't governing as a conservative. He didn't live up to all of the hype," said Santorum. 

The former Pennsylvania senator repeated many of the same jabs at Gingrich that he employed during his South Carolina swing, one of which is calling Gingrich's attacks on Romney's time as CEO of Bain Capital as an attack on capitalism.  Gingrich and former presidential candidate Rick Perry received blowback from conservatives who saw those attacks on Romney's private sector background as an attack on free markets. 

But the former Massachusetts' governor's wealth has become an issue on the campaign trail, specifically his ambiguity about whether or not he would release his tax returns.  Today Romney said he would release the records, and responding this afternoon, Santorum he too would release his records this week.

After today's stop in Southern Florida, Santorum will head to the central part of the state on Monday before participating in a debate in Tampa co-sponsoroed by NBC News.