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Santorum, others argue their talents for Iowa’s GOP caucuses


This news story was published on December 31, 2011.
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By David Lightman, Steven Thomma and William Douglas, McClatchy Newspapers –

DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential candidates spent the last day of 2011 making their closing arguments to curious, often uncertain, voters as the race remained fluid.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were at the top of the polls, but former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was surging.

Trailing were Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Gingrich blasted the Obama administration, saying the Justice Department was trying to “steal elections.” Romney and Santorum made last-ditch pitches to rally support. Perry tore into Santorum for aiding in “fleecing the American taxpayer.”

Paul went home to Texas for the holiday weekend, and Bachmann rallied voters from her Urbandale, Iowa, headquarters.

Santorum stoked the most curiosity Saturday. Until this week, he had been crisscrossing the state almost unnoticed by voters and the media, as he visited all the state’s 99 counties and held nearly 360 town hall meetings.

But in the last few days, he’s become the darling of many in the state’s influential evangelical Christian community, especially as Bachmann faded.

Santorum’s loftier status made him a prime target for Perry, who is competing for the same slice of the Iowa electorate. He blasted Santorum during an appearance at the Gigglin’ Goat Restaurant in downtown Boone, Iowa.

“I think the world of Rick Santorum, but we’ve got some real differences when it comes to fiscal issues. The differences couldn’t be clearer,” Perry said.

Too often, Perry said, Santorum backed federal spending on unnecessary local projects. That, said Perry, is nothing more than “pork barrel spending where senators scratch each others’ backs … it’s about fleecing the American taxpayer.”

Santorum, appearing in Indianola at about the same hour, did not engage Perry, instead tackling the issue wavering voters often mention: That he can’t beat President Barack Obama.

Santorum urged potential caucus-goers at a library to ignore national pundits about who can or cannot win in a general election.

“Trust your judgment and lead,” he told a room where supporters slightly outnumbered media members. “Lead and be bold. If you do, you will change the tenor of this race.”

Gingrich, despite fading poll numbers, kept plugging away, starting his day in western Iowa.

He sharply criticized the Justice Department’s recent decision to block a South Carolina law requiring voters to show certain identification before being allowed to vote. Justice maintained the law could make it harder for thousands of minority voters to go to the polls.

Gingrich said “you have to ask, why is it that they are desperate to retain the ability to steal elections, and I think that’s what it comes down to.”

Romney began his day in New Hampshire, which holds its presidential primary Jan. 10. Romney has been far ahead in statewide polls there, but is trying to assure he maintains his lead should someone like Santorum pull a surprise in the Iowa caucus and carry that momentum into New Hampshire.

Romney visited the Old Salt restaurant in Hampton, N.H., flanked by two of the state’s veteran Republicans, former Gov. John Sununu and former Sen. Judd Gregg. Romney talked mostly about President Barack Obama, saying history would judge him as a “footnote.”

Someone in the audience shouted a question concerning why Romney has not released his tax returns. Romney’s campaign has said he does not plan to release the returns at this time.

Romney returned to Iowa later Saturday and plans a series of rallies throughout the state over the next three days.

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