- Associated Press - Saturday, February 4, 2012

MONTROSE, Colo. (AP) — Republican Rick Santorum said Saturday he wants to “endanger” rival Newt Gingrich while presidential rival Ron Paul claimed “the American people are waking up,” both campaigning outside Nevada as that state began its GOP caucuses.

Santorum and Paul both looked beyond Nevada’s causes and eyed contests further down the nominating calendar, signaling the results were unlikely to change their strategy in a race that seemed to have become a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Gingrich.

In recent days Santorum has sharpened his criticism of Gingrich, whose fortunes seemed to be falling as he headed toward another setback in Nevada with no obvious state coming up for him to regain his footing. Santorum’s strategy has been to outlast Gingrich and emerge as the eventual alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Opening his day, Santorum told Republicans on Colorado’s Western Slope that Washington has gone too far in its environmental policies, especially here in the West. He said over-reaching environmental regulators were trampling on ranchers with a Washington-knows-best approach.

“‘We’ll make sure that you don’t do something to scar the land or endanger a newt,’” Santorum said. “No, not that Newt. I want to endanger that Newt. That’s a different story.”

Santorum has increased his attacks on Gingrich in recent weeks, piggybacking on criticism from Romney’s allies. Gingrich, for his part, dug in like Santorum and Paul and offered no signs the results of Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada would push any of them to exit.

Santorum, declared the winner of Iowa’s leadoff caucuses last month but likely to face a fourth consecutive loss Saturday in Nevada, planned to head from Colorado to Minnesota for a busy day on Sunday.

Paul, too, was campaigning in Minnesota, another state that meets Tuesday for the latest round of GOP contests that seem to shuffle the race on a regular basis.

Speaking before a few hundred people at a Rochester high school, Paul said his economic ideas are penetrating and a strong showing in Minnesota and other upcoming states will send a strong signal that Americans are fed up with tepid change and government as it is.

“The one thing that is on our side is the American people are waking up,” he said in a speech frequently interrupted by applause and standing ovations.

Yet Paul was keeping close tabs on Nevada, where he placed second in 2008 behind Romney. The Texas congressman is hoping for an outright win this time. Advisers believe the state’s independent, live-and-let-live ethos is receptive to Paul’s libertarian message and that his band of diehard supporters can be counted on to show up at the caucuses.

Paul’s campaign has spent $350,000 on television ads in Nevada, just behind Romney who’s spent $371,000, according to the Smart Media Group which tracks political advertising. Newt Gingrich’s campaign did not advertise at all on television in Nevada and Santorum placed only a $12,000 cable buy.

Aboard Santorum’s plane en route to Denver, the former senator got his first results from the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“We’re tied with Romney in Searchlight, Nevada. That may be the highlight of our day,” Santorum told reporters as his plane landed in Denver. “Please, emphasize ‘may.’”

Santorum told Republicans on the Western Slope that Colorado was “a wide-open state” and urged voters to support him in Tuesday’s upcoming contest.

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