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Santorum faces closer scrutiny in New Hampshire

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 5 Jan 2012 20:08 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Romney camp calls him big spender

* Trying to limit rise of insurgent rival

* Santorum seeks to recreate Iowa magic

By Steve Holland and Michelle Nichols

MANCHESTER/NORTHFIELD (Reuters) - Rising Republican presidential upstart Rick Santorum found himself under increasing scrutiny on Thursday as front-runner Mitt Romney tried to chip away at his record ahead of the key New Hampshire primary.

Santorum's surge in Iowa, which held its nominating contest on Tuesday, was so quick that his record as a U.S. senator and strong conservative views on abortion and gay marriage escaped close attention from his 2012 presidential rivals and the media.

But after finishing a close second to Romney in Iowa and bursting into the limelight, Santorum is under the microscope.

He has opened an extensive campaign of town hall meetings in New Hampshire, hoping to recreate his Iowa magic in the state, which next Tuesday holds the second contest to determine a Republican challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama.

"If you like what you heard and you're interested in helping us out, we need your help," he said in Northfield. "I know the other candidates will say they need your help, they are lying, I really do (need your help)."

Standing in his way is Romney, who has been working the state hard and is trying to protect a big lead.

Romney, who was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, had refrained from attacking Santorum in Iowa, but is now signaling he will attempt to define his rival as a big-spender and defend what is generally seen as Romney's home turf.

Romney's camp criticized Santorum for supporting billions of dollars in government spending projects while a senator from Pennsylvania. Conservatives consider cutting government spending high on their list of priorities.

MCCAIN LEADS THE CHARGE

Leading the charge was a Romney surrogate and former Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, who is a stern critic of spending items called earmarks that typically escape the scrutiny that accompanies U.S. budget legislation.

"He and I had very strong differences on earmarking and pork barrel spending," McCain told CNN of Santorum. "I believe that earmarking is a 'gateway drug' to corruption. Senator Santorum supported it and engaged in it as much as he possibly could. I strongly disagreed with it. That was a fundamental difference we had in the Senate. But I still respect him."

Santorum's efforts to obtain taxpayer funds for spending projects for his home state have long been an issue. Critics have pointed to the ${esc.dollar}500,000 he engineered for a polar bear exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo, or his backing of a costly "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

Santorum has fought back, saying he will fight for deep cuts in spending if elected next November.

McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2008 in part by attacking government spending before becoming his party's nominee.

"New Hampshire historically doesn't like earmarks because of McCain," said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican leader who supported the Arizona Republican in 2008. "That's the issue Rick is going to have to face head-on here."

New Hampshire likes to reward insurgent candidates, but it is far from clear that the state's Republicans will be as enamoured with Santorum as they were with him in Iowa, where social conservatives united behind him.

The top finishers in New Hampshire will carry important momentum toward what will be a showdown on Jan. 21 in South Carolina, where a conservative has a better chance.

Voters at a Rotary Club meeting in Manchester where Santorum spoke said they were curious but not necessarily supportive of him.

"I want to know who is going to get the economy going again," said Loren Fox, 38.

So far, Romney has not gone after Santorum with the same intensity as he did against former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the polls in Iowa before being attacked in millions of dollars of negative attack ads.

That experience has left Gingrich an angry revenge-seeker. He is campaigning in New Hampshire accusing Romney of being a "timid Massachusetts moderate" who lacks conservative principles.

Gingrich is hoping to finish high enough in New Hampshire to give him momentum going into South Carolina, which this year may hold the key to the Republican presidential nomination. A second objective is to prevent Romney from having a blow-out victory.

"I don't believe that a Massachusetts moderate is in a very good position to debate Barack Obama," Gingrich said. (Additional reporting by Ros Krasny and Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Simao)

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