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Rick Santorum 2012: The Last Stand?

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Rick Santorum campaigns Monday in Colorado.
Rick Santorum campaigns Monday in Colorado.

WASHINGTON -- His aides say otherwise, but this essentially is decision week for Rick Santorum.

His hope of staying at all relevant in the GOP presidential race rests on winning one or more of Tuesday's primaries, and on somehow causing a sensation at this weekend's meeting of conservatives in Washington. If he can't manage to do either of those things, it's hard to see how he continues -- even though, his aides insist, he is running a lean campaign with a low "burn rate" and a decent amount of cash on hand.

So far, the high point of the former senator's campaign has been Iowa, where he spent two years scratching and crawling his way to what turned out to be a 34-vote, recounted victory.

But the dogged (if not delusional) Pennsylvania Republican shows no signs of quitting -- and he is poised to make a brief semi-return to the limelight tonight with credible showings in three states: Minnesota and Colorado (which are holding caucuses) and Missouri, which is holding a non-binding "beauty pageant" primary.

The reality is that he needs to win at least one of them, preferably one with real votes at stake. The best chance for that is Minnesota, where he is leading in at least one poll.

The resurfacing of Santorum is mixed news for frontrunner Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor should be winning everything now; it will be at least a modest embarrassment if he doesn't. And each passing event that is not a Mitt-Sweep prolongs his statistical slog to the nomination, which as it stands now will take until at least mid-April at the earliest.

On the other hand, Romney's strategy for the last year has been to divide and destroy his conservative opposition, and anything that further diminishes the already-ridiculed Newt Gingrich is a good day's work as far as the brain trust in Boston is concerned. In that sense, Santorum is doing Romney a backhanded favor.

Nevertheless, and with plenty of cash on hand and nothing better to do, the Romney campaign attacked Santorum in Minnesota, sending their designated surrogate -- the not-fearsome Tim Pawlenty (former governor of Minnesota) to do the dirty work, branding Santorum a debt-loving, pork-barrel spender and Washington insider. There are ads as well.

Pawlenty bowed out of the presidential race last summer after an embarrassing showing in the Iowa straw poll, and endorsed Romney. His strategy was to be polite in debates, then attack afterwards.

"He doesn't like to call people names to their face," scoffed Hogan Gidley, Santorum's national communications director.

It's easy enough to make fun of Santorum's effort in Missouri, which is hosting a non-binding "beauty contest." But Santorum cares in part because Newt Gingrich chose not to participate, making the event something of a Mitt-Rick affair. "We see it as our first chance for a two-way referendum," said Gidley. "Newt had that in Florida and Nevada, essentially, and got whacked in both."

Santorum's other last chance is the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual conference in Washington -- as close to a tailor-made Santorum event as he could hope for. CPAC people don't trust Romney on the issues and don't trust Gingrich on personality. If Santorum can't make a sale there, he can't make it anywhere.

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