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Santorum pursues surge in Colorado, Minnesota

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DENVER — The Republican presidential race could be headed for another reshuffle Tuesday as Rick Santorum, who has lagged behind since his surprise Iowa victory, is once again challenging the dominance of front-runner Mitt Romney.

Polling over the past week shows Mr. Santorum statistically tied with Mr. Romney in Minnesota, besting him in Missouri, and running second to him but ahead of rival Newt Gingrich in Colorado, all of which hold contests Tuesday.

Mr. Romney's camp took notice, firing the kinds of broadsides it generally has aimed at Mr. Gingrich. Romney surrogates on Monday accused Mr. Santorum of pork-barrel spending. The Romney campaign also tried to blunt Mr. Santorum's attacks by pointing out that the former senator from Pennsylvania endorsed Mr. Romney in 2008.

"Typical Romney," Mr. Santorum said on the campaign trail, dismissing the criticism.

"He goes out and throws the kitchen sink and runs negative ads and sends out his surrogates to rip and tear, even though he is as vulnerable on this issue as anybody," said Mr. Santorum. "I don't think it's going to work this time."

Minnesota and Colorado hold caucuses Tuesday, while Missouri holds a nonbinding primary — and with Mr. Gingrich having failed to get on that state's ballot, it offers the first test of Mr. Romney versus a single conservative opponent.

Fresh off his second consecutive victory in Nevada on Saturday, Mr. Romney hoped to use February's relatively light schedule to build his lead in delegates, but he found himself Monday trying to dent Mr. Santorum's momentum.

His campaign sent out the press release it issued in 2008 with moderately glowing praise from Mr. Santorum's endorsement, and in a conference call with reporters, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney supporter, criticized Mr. Santorum for his "long history of pork-barrel spending," pointing to his support for earmarks.

"If you look at his record, it's not a perfect conservative record by a long shot," Mr. Pawlenty said.

Mr. Santorum defends earmarking as Congress' right, but has said the practice should be suspended given recent abuses and he would enforce that as president.

The 2012 race has been turbulent, with Mr. Santorum winning Iowa's caucuses, Mr. Romney winning New Hampshire's primary, Mr. Gingrich winning South Carolina's primary and Mr. Romney winning Florida's primary and Nevada's caucuses.

But in Iowa and Nevada, Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, won fewer overall votes than he did in 2008, when he lost the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain.

That is worrisome news heading into caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, which Mr. Romney won by double digits in 2008.

Still, the smart money says likely will win again. He has gained the backing of top Colorado Republican bigwigs, such as former Gov. Bill Owens, former Sens. Wayne Allard and Hank Brown, and Attorney General John Suthers. Mr. Romney's religion also benefits him in Colorado, which has the nation's eighth-largest Mormon population, whose members represent a powerful voting bloc in Republican elections. Turnout is expected to be lower than in 2010, the year the tea party voters flooded non-presidential caucuses, which benefits Mr. Romney, said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Tea party voters "can surge if they're really angry, but my sense is that Romney's long work here and momentum are going to make him hard to beat," said Mr. Ciruli. "Small turnout is good for Romney. I'm a little skeptical that Santorum is going to get the consistent support needed to win a majority."

If anybody can pull off the upset, it's Mr. Santorum. Since Jan. 31, he has made appearances in Colorado every day, with additional stops in Minnesota — a hybrid of his Iowa strategy, in which he spent more time in the state than any other candidate. Last week, he received the endorsement of tea party favorite Tom Tancredo, a former congressman from Colorado.

Mr. Gingrich had positioned himself as the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, but he appears to be all but conceding Colorado and Minnesota as he zeroes in on Super Tuesday on March 6. He made his first campaign stops here since the Nevada caucuses Monday.

The former House speaker's absence from the campaign trail gives Mr. Santorum a clear shot at corralling the "anybody-but-Romney" vote.

Mr. Santorum laid a wreath at the Soldiers' Field Memorial in Rochester, Minn., and gave a health care speech Monday before heading back to Colorado for two more rallies, in Golden and Denver.

Still, Mr. Romney was taking nothing for granted in Colorado, touching down for appearances Saturday, then returning Monday for a speech in Grand Junction, a fundraiser in Cherry Hills Village and a rally at Arapahoe High School in Centennial. At the same time, his campaign attempted to downplay expectations in Minnesota, with Mr. Pawlenty predicting that the race would be "very competitive."

"I could easily see a scenario where the three or four top candidates tomorrow are bunched together towards the top of the pack," Mr. Pawlenty, the Romney campaign's national co-chairman, told reporters. "I can't tell you who's going to come out on top."

The Public Policy Polling survey showed Mr. Santorum with 29 percent and Mr. Romney with 27 percent of the vote in Minnesota. In Colorado, Mr. Romney led with 40 percent of the vote to Mr. Santorum's 26 percent.

"Santorum's personal likability — perhaps driven by the fact that no one has felt the need to attack him — has a lot to do with why he's doing so well in these states," the polling firm said in a statement.

In 2008, Mr. Romney took 60 percent of the vote in Colorado to 18 percent for Mr. McCain. In Minnesota, Mr. Romney won 41 percent to 22 percent for Mr. McCain and 16 percent for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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