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Santorum: S.C. results mean GOP race will be a long fight

From Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 3:04 PM EST, Sun January 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Santorum on Newt Gingrich's S.C. win: "It's game on again"
  • Santorum says he's taking campaign to Florida
  • The conservative Santorum wasn't able to sway enough S.C. evangelical voters
  • On prospect of a long primary season: "That nominee is going to be sharpened by steel"

Charleston, South Carolina (CNN) -- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished third in the first Southern state primary, a disappointing showing for the candidate who just days ago was declared the winner of the first 2012 GOP presidential contest in Iowa.

Santorum conceded to CNN in an exclusive interview that the winner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "kicked butt" in South Carolina but argued the 2012 GOP nomination fight would be a long race.

"The great narrative is three days ago, there was an inevitability in this race. Mitt Romney was 2-0 and soon to be 3-0 and I took Iowa and Newt took South Carolina, and it's game on again," the Pennsylvania Senator said.

Speaking to supporters at the Citadel, Santorum stressed the split decision in the first three Republican contests, noting, "Three states, three winners, what a great country."

Santorum to Gingrich: 'Good job buddy!'

South Carolina hands Newt Gingrich a huge win

Any hope for a strong finish in the Palmetto State sank quickly heading into Saturday's voting as conservatives -- the same block of voters Santorum worked tirelessly to pick up -- swung in a big way in Gingrich's direction. Exit polls showed that Gingrich got more than double the support among evangelical Christian voters that Santorum did. Coming a week after a major group of evangelical leaders threw their support behind Santorum, this shows that his message that he's the reliable conservative alternative to Romney didn't resonate.

But Santorum told CNN those religious conservatives didn't have time to organize in time for Saturday's vote, but they will in upcoming primaries.

"The mechanisms for these organizations to turn themselves around, start producing something on the ground, it takes a little more time than a couple of days. We felt like we did get some support out there and some lift, and we're going to see that play in a much bigger way as we go down the line," Santorum predicted.

Santorum admits he is up against bigger odds as the focus moves onto to Florida because Romney and Gingrich have significantly more cash in their campaign coffers, but he insists his campaign is aggressively working to compete in the Sunshine State. His campaign scheduled events Sunday and Monday in Florida.

Visiting voters at the polls in Chapin, South Carolina, on Saturday afternoon, Santorum said if that the official win in Iowa was declared sooner, it would have translated into momentum here to post a stronger finish, but it came too late.

"You know we've finally been given the victory in Iowa if we'd had it two weeks ago it might be a very different situation. It might have been a very different race, so you know we're just sort of at this point getting the bump from the victory that we had in Iowa," Santorum said.

Gingrich's solid win here takes away a key argument that Santorum has been making that Gingrich is unelectable, with exit polls showing voters who say beating Obama is their top priority were picking the former speaker over Mitt Romney and Santorum.

But Santorum brushed off that notion, saying South Carolina is just one state, and the topsy-turvy GOP race will only make the eventual nominee more prepared to take on the president. Plus Santorum sasid he thinks the more time voters have to examine his record, the better his prospects will be in states such as Nevada and Colorado.

"This is going to be a long one, and it's going to be the best thing that could happen for whoever the eventual Republican nominee is because that nominee is going to be sharpened by steel," Santorum said.

And for a candidate who stresses his strong marriage and the importance of family values, the setting of his venue in Charleston on Saturday night was fitting -- a hall across from a wedding taking place on the college campus.

CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report

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