Discuss as:

Romney shifts focus to Santorum ahead of Tuesday caucuses

 

GRAND JUNCTION, CO -- Mitt Romney's campaign has begun to train its sights on Rick Santorum over the past 48 hours, reflecting the Romney campaign's concern that the former Pennsylvania senator may pose the freshest threat to their frontrunner status.

The Romney campaign released a barrage of opposition research on Santorum on Monday morning, the type of offensive tactic that had previously been reserved for Newt Gingrich and, before him, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The former Massachusetts governor's campaign worked to link Santorum to pork barrel spending during his time in Congress, and touting his endorsement of Governor Romney in the last presidential race. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty assailed Santorum's record on spending during a conference call with reporters, listing the litany of earmarks Santorum had supported -- and has subsequently defended -- during his time in Congress.

And, in a reflection of the changing dynamics in the GOP nominating battle, Pawlenty sought to downplay expectations for Romney's performance in tomorrow's Minnesota caucuses -- a minor nominating contest, but one in which Santorum believes he might be able to score a February upset.

"I think it's going to be a tight race. Mitt Romney is competitive here," Pawlenty told Andrea Mitchell in an MSNBC interview this afternoon, repeating a point he made on the conference call. "I think you'll see a clumping result tomorrow. But it's certainly a place where other candidates are going to have a stronghold, and it's not going to be a walk in the park for Mitt Romney."

Why the change in focus? It's reflective of a change in political geography and political realities that opens the door for Santorum to climb back into the top tier of candidates this week.

Social conservatives make up a greater proportion of the voters in Minnesota, whose caucus-goers might most closely resemble caucus-goers in Iowa -- the contest in which Santorum barely edged Romney on Jan. 3. Unlike in Iowa, though, Romney doesn't have the benefit of having spent the kind of money as he did in Iowa, and his infrastructure there is less developed than it was in the Hawkeye State.

Campaigning this morning in Rochester, and clearly enjoying the chance to scrap with the frontrunner, Santorum delivered a speech attacking Romney for his Massachusetts healthcare plan, labeling it "Obamneycare" -- a term coined, ironically, by Pawlenty this June.

"The press likes to write the story that there is an inevitability to 'Obama light' on health care being the Republican nominee. That would be a devastating thing for the chances of us who would like to see President Obama defeated in the next election," he said. "Gov. Romney is dead wrong on the most important issue of the day and he should not be our nominee."

Santorum's campaign has aggressively circulated the results of computerized polling (data not used by NBC News) suggesting a surge in momentum for their candidate in Minnesota.

For the Romney campaign's part, they've largely ignored Minnesota and Missouri. Romney hasn't campaigned in Missouri at all in 2012, and has made only one stop in Minnesota: taking part in a rally in Eagan last week. Today, Romney will send surrogates John Bolton and Pawlenty to campaign for him in Minnesota, while he campaigns in Colorado for the next two days.

On Jan. 30, Romney was asked by a reporter what states he thought could present uphill battles going forward. Minnesota was the first state to pass his lips, and he described it as one of a number of states that present "challenges and opportunities, and as a "state that’s hard to predict how they’ll make their decision."