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In advance of Tuesday's caucuses, a Santorum-Romney smack down

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger under 2012 Presidential election, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, National campaigns, Republicans Updated: February 6, 2012 - 3:30 PM

By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Jennifer Brooks

On the eve of caucus day, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney blasted each other.

Although Romney is the presumed frontrunner in many contests, his campaign took aim at Santorum in advance of Tuesday's Minnesota caucuses, where the former Pennsylvania Senator may squeak out a win.

"What I wanted to focus this morning on the notion that Rick Santorum is presenting to caucus attendees in Minnesota and to conservatives beyond that Rick Santorum is really as conservative as those caucus attendees and he’s not," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, acting as a Romney surrogate. "He clearly has been part of the big spending establishment in Congress and in the influence peddling industry that surrounds Congress."

Santorum, who had largely avoided smacking down his opponents during his campaign, himself hit back in events in Minnesota's Rochester Monday – in the shadow of the Mayo Clinic complex – to draw a bright line between his health care policy beliefs and Romney's.

Speaking to an overflow crowd at the Kahler Hotel, Santorum blasted his opponent as “Obama-lite” and a proponent of “Romneycare” – his famed health insurance initiative while governor of Massachusetts barely distinguishable from the president’s.

Romney, Santorum said, is not only “unqualified” to debate the president on healthcare issues, he should be “disqualified.” The Santorum-supporting super PAC has also been hitting Romney and Gingrich in Minnesota.

The fiery rhetoric comes as the campaigns take aim in the impossible-to-call Minnesota caucuses.

The Romney campaign, which spent weeks hammering Gingrich, Tuesday concentrated on Santorum, calling him big spending earmarker who should not market himself as the only  true conservative.

Pawlenty, who sounded none too confident about Romney's Minnesota chances, said "each state, each weeks bring a little bit different dynamic." The former governor, who himself lost out in a 2002 gubernatorial straw poll, said no one running has a perfect record as a conservative.

The Romney campaign piled on, reminding reporters of the kind, conservative pitch Santorum made for Romney in 2008. The Santorum campaign also dug into the archives producing a 2006 Romney quote from saying, "I'd be embarrassed if I didn't always ask for federal money whenever I get the chance."

Reporters traveling with Santorum said the candidate has been dogged at recent campaign stops by hecklers in pink pig suits. Some turned out to be PETA activists, but others, they said, appeared to have been sent by the Romney campaign to highlight all the federal earmarks – “pork”  -- Santorum directed to Pennsylvania over the years.
But for the supporters who came to listen and left with armloads of yard signs, the longshot candidate might be worth a shot.

“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I like Rick, but I’m not going to vote for him because I don’t think he has a chance,” said Melanie Stoen of Austin, who brought her seven children to meet the candidate and shake his hand. “Of course he doesn’t have a chance if we don’t support him!...I’m going to the caucus tomorrow for the first time in my life, and I’m bringing my kids.”

As Santorum climbed back into his campaign pickup truck to leave the rally, a lone heckler waved a sign from the other side of the street. A heckler in a pink pig costume.

“Pork Lovers For Rick,” said the sign, waved by a protester who declined to give his political affiliation, and identified himself only as “Porky.”

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