Romney Targets Santorum for Attacks Following 3-State Wipeout

Two Oklahoma state officials supporting Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential bid held their fire today on a conference call arranged by the candidate’s campaign and billed as an attack on rival Rick Santorum.

“I think he’s a fine man,” Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones said of Santorum, who revived his campaign with a sweep of three contests this week in the Republican race. “He would be a tremendous improvement over Barack Obama.”

Oklahoma State Treasurer Ken Miller said Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is a “fine man and friend.”

The Romney campaign had said in a release yesterday promoting the call that it would feature Jones and Miller discussing Santorum’s “enthusiastic defense of earmarks and support of reckless spending.”

Neither man mentioned Santorum’s record or earmarks, the federal funding of a lawmaker’s pet project, though both said they thought Romney was the best candidate.

Romney’s campaign organized the call as Santorum campaigned in Oklahoma after he won Missouri’s non-binding primary and caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, all on Feb. 7.

Insider Attack

Romney, whose front-runner status in the nomination race was shaken by the results, yesterday berated Santorum as a long- time Washington insider and lumped him with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor compared both Santorum and Gingrich with Obama, saying all three lacked experience in the “real economy.”

Santorum and Gingrich “spent a lot of time in Washington and during that time they spent a lot more money than they took in,” Romney, who has stressed his experience as a private equity executive, said in Atlanta, Georgia.

On the campaign conference call today, Miller and Jones said they thought Romney was best qualified to improve the U.S. economy and control government spending. Miller said he’s supporting Romney because the country needs “a strong turnaround specialist” and “chief executive” as president.

“He’s the best man for the job,” Jones said.

A Romney campaign spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the conference call.

Romney-Santorum Ticket?

Jones, in a later telephone interview, said he wasn’t interested in “running down Senator Santorum” while he promotes Romney’s candidacy.

“On a personal note, I think that Senator Santorum is a fine man and personally wouldn’t mind seeing a Romney-Santorum ticket,” Jones said. “Stranger things have happened, and I think that would be a fantastic combination.”

Oklahoma holds a primary on March 6, so-called Super Tuesday when 11 nomination contests are held.

Santorum earlier today praised supporters in Oklahoma City for their conservative values and said he is the best candidate to take on Obama. Romney can’t effectively oppose Obama’s health-care legislation because a law he signed in Massachusetts was so similar to the federal measure, Santorum said.

Romney “is uniquely disqualified to make that case” against the health-care overhaul Obama pushed through Congress, Santorum said.

Final Returns

In final returns from this week’s contests, Santorum ran 30 percentage points ahead of second-place finisher Romney in Missouri and beat him by 5 points in Colorado. In Minnesota, final results showed U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas in second place, 18 points behind Santorum and 10 points ahead of Romney. Gingrich, who wasn’t on the Missouri ballot, ran fourth in Minnesota and third in Colorado (BEESCO), 1 point ahead of Paul.

Santorum now has four victories in the nomination race to three for Romney and one for Gingrich.

“We definitely are the campaign right now with the momentum,” Santorum said yesterday on CNN. “We’re doing very, very well raising money.”

Santorum campaigned yesterday in Texas, which holds its primary April 3. Stopping at a chapel in McKinney, he referred to his also-ran status in the Republican race before his victories this week, telling a group of area pastors: “The gift of being underestimated is a wonderful gift.”

As Romney arrived in Georgia yesterday, he expressed confidence in his campaign’s future and sought to discount Santorum’s wins.

‘Aggressive’ Competing

“We think we can beat Senator Santorum where we compete head to head in an aggressive way, and we obviously didn’t do that in Colorado or Minnesota (BEESMN),” he told reporters.

Romney won both states in his failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination.

This week’s results highlighted Romney’s difficulty in gaining support from conservative Republicans who are focused on issues such as banning abortion. At the same time, Santorum’s new strength may aid Romney in a drawn-out nomination fight. A revitalized Santorum campaign and Gingrich may keep splitting the anti-Romney vote.

Romney had been the clear front-runner in the race after easily winning Florida’s Jan. 31 primary and Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucuses.

Gingrich didn’t mention Santorum or Romney by name during a speech yesterday at Jergens Inc., a closely held company in Cleveland that manufactures products such as specialty fasteners. Gingrich also spent Feb. 7 in Ohio, which has begun early voting ahead of its Super Tuesday primary.

“We’re in the race all the way,” he said on CNN.

In a chat with a Georgia talk radio host, he deflected a question about his poor showing in the Feb. 7 votes.

“It was a really bad day for Mitt Romney,” Gingrich told Rusty Humphries. “He’s the guy that’s supposed to be gathering up all these delegates. He took a drubbing yesterday.”

Romney, Santorum and Gingrich are to address activists tomorrow at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The reception they receive will be closely monitored, especially following the Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado results.

Paul declined a speaking invitation from the group.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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