DES MOINES, Iowa — Emboldened by his strong Iowa finish, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is headed to New Hampshire — the heart of Mitt Romney country — instead of making a beeline with fellow social conservative Michele Bachmann to more politically hospitable South Carolina.
Santorum will leave the Hawkeye State as the early 2012 version of the "Comeback Kid," after elbowing his way into the top tier of contenders these past two weeks.ï¿½He was in a virtual tie for first place with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa's caucuses late Tuesday night.
Despite Romney holding a substantial lead over the GOP field in New Hampshire polls and having tens of millions of dollars more in his campaign coffers than Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator is committed to campaigning there to show that he can appeal nationally.
"I don't know what it's going to be ... but ... we're going to New Hampshire because we're going to compete in every region of this country," Santorum said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I come from the Northeast, I've been able to get blue-collar voters, the Reagan Democrats, to vote for me in the past, and we're going to do the same thing and that's why we're going to win this election."
Days before the Iowa results rolled in, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced they were bypassing New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary for South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21. But after finishing in a disappointing fifth place with only 10 percent of the vote, Perry told supporters Tuesday night that he's returning to Texas to reassess his campaign.
If Perry chooses to press on, South Carolina could be the last stand for him and Bachmann. They would each bank on the state's Christian conservative base to revive their flagging presidential fortunes.
And with his remarkable recent rise from a single-digit, second-tier candidate to a likely Top Three performer in Iowa, Santorum has to campaign in New Hampshire to prove that he is a viable candidate on a national scale, political analysts say.
He has a tall challenge, according to polls. A Suffolk University tracking poll released Tuesday showed Romney atop the Republican pack with 43 percent of the New Hampshire vote, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 16 percent.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China who skipped Iowa to campaign almost exclusively in New Hampshire, came in at 10 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia at 9 percent, followed by Santorum at 5 percent. Both Perry and Bachmann registered at 2 percent.
"He traditionally doesn't poll well up here," David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said of Santorum. "We did see a mini-bump in our tracking, though, so who knows? ... He could potentially pass Gingrich and Huntsman and finish after Ron Paul."
Dave Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina's Clemson University, said that as daunting as New Hampshire might be for Santorum, he has almost no choice but to campaign there.
"I think he's better off going to New Hampshire if he wants to be a player. He's got to go there," Woodward said. "He's got to convince people that he's viable and can win the nomination."
Besides, Santorum's support in South Carolina is closer to where he was in Iowa before his surge than after, according to Woodard. A Clemson Palmetto Poll conducted before Christmas showed Santorum in last place with just 2 percent of the vote. Gingrich led the poll at 38 percent.
But Woodard suspects that Santorum's numbers in South Carolina have improved markedly in recent days. and he's sure to get a boost out of Iowa. But how much?
"He's spent a great deal of time here. I guess if he wins Iowa, he can win here," Woodard said. "The prospect of jumping up and winning here are pretty remote, but anything can happen this year."
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