Santorum Sweep Excites Republicans at Meeting

Rick Santorum, fresh off victories in three states, will use a speech to Republican activists to attempt to solidify his position as the prime alternative to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race.

Santorum, Romney and rival Newt Gingrich will each make their case today in Washington at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a group whose gatherings attract Republicans motivated by cutting taxes and ending abortion rights. This bloc has resisted Romney’s candidacy, questioning his commitment to their causes.

“Santorum and Newt are the last two standing” among alternatives to Romney, said Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor at The American Spectator, a conservative opinion review. “That’s where the real battle is going to be here.”

In contrast to the 2008 Republican nomination contest, this year’s battle probably could continue into the next several months following Santorum’s boomlet. It was during the same group’s annual gathering in Washington four years ago that Romney ended a presidential bid and endorsed Senator John McCain of Arizona, who went on the claim the Republican nomination.

Battlefield Reset

Santorum’s Feb. 7 wins in Missouri (BEESCO), Minnesota and Colorado reset the presidential battlefield, conference attendees said. In an interview with Fox News yesterday, Romney, the presumed front-runner, said he expects to “lose a number of states before we actually get to a point where I get the 1,150 delegates that I need.”

Bruce Montgomery, a 59-year-old manager from Glenwood, Maryland, who has favored Gingrich, said he’s moving toward Santorum.

“I am desperately anxious to nominate a conservative who will then win the election,” he said. “The results of the last 24 hours were surprisingly conclusive.”

“I am not satisfied that Mitt Romney is instinctively and completely and intellectually a conservative,” said Montgomery. “I think Santorum is.”

Santorum’s momentum is fueled by some Republicans coalescing around him as a single conservative alternative to Romney after test-driving several other candidates, including Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who spoke yesterday at the annual conference. Each ended their candidacies in January.

Straw Poll

Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the Republican 2008 vice presidential nominee, is scheduled to close the event tomorrow after an estimated 10,000 attendees cast votes for their preferred nominee. That straw poll could help shape the direction of the race, said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the convention.

“This is the ultimate focus group,” said Cardenas. “I’ve been around for two decades watching CPAC. It’s the first time that we’ve had a real competitive primary race coincide with CPAC.”

U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who won CPAC’s 2010 and 2011 straw polls and is the fourth remaining Republican presidential contender, declined a speaking invitation to the group this year. His son, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, appeared before the gathering yesterday.

Santorum’s wins this week were fed in part by voters motivated by opposition to President Barack Obama’s recent ruling requiring sectarian schools and hospitals to provide birth-control coverage to employees, according to religious leaders.

‘War on Religion’

“When you have the feeling that the Obama administration has declared war on religion you want your best soldier going against him,” said Richard Land, the president of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “You want your paratroopers going against them, and Rick’s the paratrooper.”

Foster Friess, who has helped fund the super-PAC that supports Santorum, told Bloomberg Television yesterday that the candidate’s message is resonating because “he stresses that our rights come from the Creator, not the government.”

Interviews at CPAC yesterday showed that Santorum’s outreach to voters who are most concerned about such issues as blocking abortion and same-sex marriage may be succeeding.

Matt Novak, a 20-year-old math student from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said he’s “out of the Romney phase.”

“I more align myself with his social conservatism,” he said of Santorum.

‘Puts Me Off’

Andres Celedon, a 21-year-old public policy student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, said he is “defaulting on Romney” after Santorum’s victories convinced him that he could beat Obama. “Romney, I like him but there’s something about him that just puts me off,” he said.

“I’m liking Santorum; he stands up for what he believes in,” said Celedon. “He’s not like Romney, who seems to just go with the poll.”

Not all conference-goers were convinced of the chances Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, would have against Obama. Casey Constant, a 21-year-old student from Illinois State in Springfield, said he’s sticking with Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, because he has the best prospects of getting elected. He called Santorum’s victories “shocking, really.”

Janet Montgomery, a 57-year-old homemaker from Glenwood, Maryland, expressed concern about how Santorum might perform in debates. “He’s not as dynamic, not as personable,” said Montgomery, who is supporting Paul.

Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, also is holding on to supporters.

“I’ve seen a lot of Santorum stickers,” said Sheila Ryan, an executive assistant at a conservative website outside Washington. “But I like Newt. If he gets the nomination, conservatives will stick up for him.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at   or hprzybyla@bloomberg.net.

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

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