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After third-place finish, Rick Santorum declares race ‘wide open’

Vowing to stand for conservative principles and “the working-class values that my grandfather taught to me,” Rick Santorum appeared before his supporters in a Charleston, S.C., ballroom Saturday night, vowing to take his campaign into Florida and beyond -- even though, in early returns, he appeared to be running in third place in a four-man race for South Carolina’s GOP nomination.

“It’s a wide open race,” he said. “Join the fight.”

With front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both accused by Republican critics of straying from the conservative line, Santorum Saturday crafted an appeal to voters who were looking for “a stark contrast” to President Obama and the Democrats.

With 68% of precincts reporting, CNN had Santorum in third place with 18% of the vote, behind leader Gingrich, who earned 41% of the vote, and Mitt Romney, at 26%.

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Santorum took to a stage after 8 p.m., accompanied by his wife, six of his seven children, numerous supporters and a big banner that read “The COURAGE to fight for America.”

Harking back to his roots as the grandson of a coal miner, he told enthusiastic supporters that he was the candidate who would speak for conservative blue-collar voters.  “Those are the people in America who are being left behind,” he said. “Those are the folks in America who neither party has a voice for.”

He said he had a different message than the other contenders. “I’m going to go and talk about how we’re going to have a Republican Party, a conservative movement that makes sure that everyone in America has the opportunity to rise,” he said. 

Santorum, who had staked his campaign in the state on his appeal to evangelical Christians, said he would continue to talk about values.

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“If we are not the party that stands up for the truth about the importance of marriage, the importance of families, the importance of fatherhood and motherhood, the importance of those values,” he said, “then we are a party that no longer has a heart, and we are not a party that’s going to be a majority party in this country. We have to be the party that speaks to everyone.” 

But Santorum’s anti-gay-marriage stance has also earned him the enmity of activists, and on Saturday a handful of them infiltrated his election-night party at the Citadel, the storied military college in Charleston.

At one point, after Santorum promised to offer a path to success for all people, a protester shouted, “Unless they’re gay! Occupy!” and tossed glitter into the air.

At the end of the speech, more protesters in the crowds began chanting “Santorum, Santorum, you’re a bigot! Occupy!” and throwing more glitter on the crowd -- a protest tactic that’s become known as a “glitter bomb.” The protesters, about a half-dozen men and women, were muscled out of the ballroom by Santorum staffers and supporters.

Neither the protest nor the returns had dampened the spirits of the true Santorum supporters. Drew Collins, 41, an Anglican priest from Charleston, said that Santorum may end up in third place in South Carolina, but he noted that three candidates had now won in three separate states.

And he thought Santorum had done a good job ginning up interest in his underdog campaign in the fight for South Carolina -- interest that might give him momentum heading into Florida.

“I think people are excited,” said Collins, an Army veteran who was attracted Santorum’s antiabortion stance and his support for the military. “I don’t know how he’s going to finish here, but hopefully attention will be redirected.”

Jon Rouleau, 32, a Charleston insurance agent, said he “loved” Santorum’s speech, and said that it seemed as though, in the topsy-turvy GOP this year, “It’s anybody’s game.”

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Rouleau said he didn’t know who Santorum was until a couple of months ago, and “stumbled on him” as he began looking for an alternative to Romney and other candidates, whom, it seemed to him, “the Republican Party has pushed on us.”

The question for Santorum now was whether enough conservatives could hear his message.

“I feel like if more people knew about Rick Santorum and his principles he’d be a front-runner in this race,” he said.

richard.fausset@latimes.com

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

 

 


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