Santorum declares Republican race now between him and Romney

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum started out his bid for the Republican presidential nomination seeming cranky, peevish and uptight.

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum started out his bid for the Republican presidential nomination seeming cranky, peevish and uptight.

But now he’s gaining ground on front-runner Mitt Romney, all but elbowing Newt Gingrich out of the way while embracing comparisons to Richie Cunningham, the clean-cut, congenial, aw-shucks hero of the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days.”

“A little bit of Richie Cunningham wouldn’t be a bad thing for our society right now,” Santorum, a staunch social conservative with a penchant for sweater vests, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

Santorum also declared himself Romney’s chief competitor in the aftermath of his clean sweep of nominating contests last week in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. His bold proclamation is buoyed by a spate of new polls that suggest Santorum’s moment in the sun might not be as fleeting as those enjoyed by his rivals for the nomination, both past and present.

Gallup’s daily tracking poll on Sunday had Santorum continuing to creep up on Romney nationally, at 27 per cent compared to the former Massachusetts governor’s 34 per cent. Gingrich, meantime, was stagnant at 16 per cent and Ron Paul was well behind in fourth.

Santorum is also running ahead of his rivals in Tennessee, a state with a large evangelical Christian population. The Gingrich campaign had hoped he’d do well there given the former speaker of the House of Representatives is popular with southern voters and sits well atop the polls in nearby Georgia.

But a new American Research poll has Santorum at 34 per cent in Tennessee, followed by Romney at 27 per cent, Gingrich at 16 per cent and Paul at 13 per cent. The state holds its nominating contest on so-called Super Tuesday on March 6.

“This is a two-person race right now,” Santorum said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re focused on making sure that folks know that we’re the best alternative to Barack Obama.”

Santorum brushed off Romney’s win in the non-binding Maine caucuses over the weekend, pointing out he barely campaigned there and spent next to no money in the state.

Santorum’s war chest, however, is certainly expanding.

His Midwest sweep spurred more than $3 million in donations, money that will largely be spent in Michigan and Arizona ahead of their primaries on Feb. 28.

And though he may share Richie Cunningham’s love of sweater vests, Santorum is behaving more like tough guy Fonzie as he gains on Romney, calling him “desperate” and vowing to go after him aggressively in Michigan, the state where the front-runner was raised and where his father served as governor.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time in Michigan and Arizona …. that’s where we’ve really been focusing on,” Santorum told ABC’s “This Week.”

The Romney campaign, meantime, intends to step up its attacks on Santorum as a long-time Washington insider who sought federal funds for projects in his home state of Pennsylvania — also known as earmarks, now a filthy word among debt-conscious conservatives.

“You reach a point where desperate people do desperate things,” said Santorum of Romney’s strategy.

Romney, indeed, continues to struggle to connect with the party’s base, and even his victory in Maine had an ominous underbelly — 61 per cent of the state’s voters opted for a candidate other than Romney in a state that’s next door to Massachusetts, where he served as governor for four years.

Romney won the state with 51 per cent of the vote in 2008.

The front-runner is expected to spend the next few days hitting up donors and making some campaign appearances in Arizona and Michigan.

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