COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich came clean Tuesday afternoon, admitting that if he can't win this state's primary on Saturday, he probably can't win the Republican nomination at all.
"If I don't win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate," the former House speaker said, referring to Mitt Romney. "And the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama."
Gingrich's frank statement was in contrast to former Sen. Rick Santorum and his supporters, who have insisted that the former Pennsylvania senator can and will keep his candidacy alive even if Romney wins the Palmetto state and goes on to win Florida on Jan. 31.
Santorum grew testy Tuesday when pressed by The Huffington Post about how he plans to stay in the race for an extended period.
"Why are you guys so fixated on the length?" Santorum asked. "Let's just do me a favor: we'll take this one election at a time, and then I'll talk to you after this election about what we're going to do in the next election."
But the most recent poll of the state's voters held little good news for either Gingrich or Santorum, showing Romney at 33 percent, compared with Gingrich's 22 percent and Santorum's 14 percent.
And with just three days left before the South Carolina primary, there is little evidence that either Gingrich or Santorum so far is consolidating conservative support in a way that could help them beat Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Sensing this, Gingrich (R-Ga.) stepped up his attacks on both Santorum and Romney. He suggested that both Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was at 6 percent in the latest poll, should drop out and support him.
"From the standpoint of the conservative movement, consolidating into a Gingrich candidacy would in fact virtually guarantee victory on Saturday, and I'd be delighted if either Perry or Santorum would do that. They have to make that decision," Gingrich said.
Gingrich also said he could win a general election showdown with President Barack Obama, but Santorum could not.
"You could make a pretty good case I actually know how to design a national campaign. I actually know how to set up a conservative alternative to Obama," Gingrich said in Florence. "I don't think Santorum can win. It's not because he's not a nice guy, but he doesn't have any of the knowledge of how to do something like this."
Gingrich's stump speech Tuesday did not include the attacks on Romney's career in private equity that drew attention a week ago and then rebukes from many corners of conservatism. But when asked about his past comments, Gingrich did not shrink from the topic. Instead he doubled down, implying that Romney was not a "real capitalist."
"The Bain model was to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain a great deal of money and leave. Now, I'll let you decide if that's really good capitalism. I think it's exploitative. It's think it's not defensible," Gingrich said, referring to Romney's former firm of Bain Capital.
"I'm proud of real capitalists," Gingrich said at a state Chamber of Commerce event here in the state capital. "I'm proud of guys who say to their workers: 'I'm in it with you. If I lose money and you lose a job, we lost together because we both tried.' But I'm not particularly proud of people who go in and leverage the game, borrow the money, leave the debt behind and walk off with all the profits."
Gingrich also threw rhetorical jabs at the president. When a voter in Florence said Republicans needed to "bloody Obama's nose," Gingrich said that was too gentle a metaphor.
"I don't want to bloody his nose. I want to knock him out," Gingrich said.
Santorum was a contrast, keeping up a steady pace and keeping his rhetoric even-handed. He continued to castigate Romney for ads by a super PAC supporting him, and stepped up his criticisms of Gingrich. But Santorum's central argument is that he is a true, reliable and bold conservative, unlike Romney, and that he is sober, measured and realistic in a way that Gingrich is not.
In discussing entitlement reform, Santorum said Romney's plan was "timid," while Gingrich's was "irresponsible."
Yet Santorum attacked the character of both Romney and Gingrich. A TV ad being run by Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney, suggests Santorum supported voting rights for convicted felons in prison, when in fact he was only for restoring their ability to vote after they left prison.
Santorum said Romney's refusal to call on the super PAC to remove the ad -- Romney said Monday night that he thought the ad "sounded accurate" -- was "an error in character."
"I would never ever, ever want to be affiliated or associated with somebody doing something for me that I know is blatantly false," Santorum said, adding that Romney has appeared at a fundraiser for Restore Our Future.
As for Gingrich, Santorum was incensed when asked about Gingrich's suggestion that he and Perry drop out.
"It's an enormous amount of hubris for someone who lost their first two races, who thinks enough of themselves -- because a couple of polls have him at this moment in time ahead of me -- that everybody should step aside and let him, who hasn't defeated me in two of the elections so far, to let him have a wide berth," Santorum said.
"I wouldn't be so arrogant as to suggest that anybody gets out of this race. And I won't suggest anybody gets out of this race. These are character issues," Santorum said.
Santorum has said he does not think the primary will end soon, given the extended nature of the primary calendar and the fact that through March, each primary state will reward its delegates proportionally rather than in a winner-take-all method.
"The idea that the first two or three primaries are going to decide this race is just ridiculous. We've got a long way to go," Santorum said last week. "The delegate race is going to be a long way to come."
Some voters were aware of that argument.
"Until April, none of these things counts that much. You need 1,100-some delegates," said Teri Starkey, 47, a local Republican activist and nursing student who went back to school after losing her bank job in 2008. "They're a long way from done."
"They all need to just stay their course until April and get through some more primaries," said Starkey, who acknowledged that other voters were not as aware of the primary calendar as she is.
Other factors could allow Santorum to stay in the race for some time. Wealthy conservative donor Foster Friess, pledged this week to give as much as $500,000 to a super PAC supporting Santorum, and sent a note to friends asking that they donate to Santorum as well.
When asked about the super PAC, Santorum protested that he still needs money to fund a campaign.
"Super PACs can't pay for me to run my race. I've got to have the resources to be able to go out. I can't finance my own travel. I don't have that kind of wealth," he said. "I can't go out and hire campaign staff out of a super PAC."
But the super PAC, named the Red, White and Blue Fund, can give Santorum air cover in a state like Florida, where candidates face a very expensive campaign ahead of the Jan. 31 primary.
Gary Bauer, a veteran social conservative leader who has endorsed Santorum, indicated in an interview that he thinks Gingrich might withdraw after South Carolina.
"The winnowing process is beginning. I assume that one or maybe even two people will be gone after South Carolina," Bauer said, referring to Perry and Gingrich.
Bauer also argued that there is no reason to think South Carolina will be the definitive contest.
"There will be developments on a domestic front. There'll be developments in the Middle East. A candidate could make a serious mistake. I think it could still go on a while," he said.
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