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Santorum to shift back to economic message after failing to topple Romney

By Jim Acosta, National Political Correspondent
updated 1:44 AM EST, Wed February 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Santorum says Romney's Michigan win wasn't as big as it should have been
  • Robo-call urging Democrats to vote for him had nothing to do with results, Santorum says
  • Santorum, Romney campaigns trade hypocrisy accusations over crossover voting
  • Santorum adviser dismisses notion that another Republican will enter field

Grand Rapids, Michigan (CNN) -- Rick Santorum put a positive spin on his disappointing loss in Michigan, saying "we feel great" about the results as the focus shifts to Super Tuesday contests.

"This was going to be [Mitt] Romney's night. The question was how big. And it wasn't very big," Santorum said in a reference to Mitt Romney, who had a home-state advantage in Michigan.

The former Pennsylvania senator fell short of pulling off an upset that could have badly damaged the Romney campaign.

Asked whether he would recalibrate his message in the days leading up to next week's Super Tuesday contests, Santorum looked back to the campaign banner over his shoulder that read "Made in America."

"I think that's a pretty good message -- the message I've been giving. Obviously, it did very very well in Michigan," Santorum said.

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During his concession speech, Santorum thanked Michigan voters who nearly chose him over its native son.

"A month ago they didn't know who we were. But they do now," Santorum said to a room of cheering supporters.

During the speech he paid tribute to his 93-year-old mother who he noted went to college.

In the day before the primary, Santorum's campaign confirmed it released a controversial robo-call that reached out to Democratic voters to cross over in the state's open primary and cast ballots against Romney.

After his concession speech, Santorum dismissed the notion the robo-call had any impact on the primary's outcome.

"I don't think that had anything to do with the results," he said.

Earlier in the day, Romney labeled the robo-call a "dirty trick" and suggested a Santorum victory might be tainted if Democrats put him over the top.

"I think the hardest thing about predicting what's going to happen today is whether Sen. Santorum's effort to call Democrat households and tell them to come out and vote against Mitt Romney is going to be successful or not," Romney said at a news conference.

Both campaigns traded accusations of hypocrisy on the issue of crossover voters. Santorum officials noted Romney crossed over as an independent to vote for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts primary.

Romney officials pointed to a CNN report that noted Santorum spoke out against open primaries at a telephone town hall in Minnesota last month. At the time, Santorum said if Democratic or independent voters wanted to participate in the GOP primary, they should register as Republicans.

Before the controversy over the robo-call, Santorum was coming under heavy criticism from some Republicans who feared the former senator was spending too much time discussing sensitive social issues.

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In an appearance on ABC's "This Week," Santorum said John F. Kennedy's call for a separation between church and state made him want to "throw up." Santorum later told a conservative talk show host he regretted the remark.

In a separate interview with CNN, a top Santorum strategist indicated the former senator will spend more time talking about economic issues in the coming days.

"I think we are back on it," Santorum senior strategist John Brabender said, referring to the campaign's message on the economy.

The prospect of a Romney loss in Michigan had fueled wild speculation in Washington that another Republican candidate would jump into the race. However, Brabender said this is no time to turn to what he described as the GOP bullpen.

"This is not about having a relief pitcher come in who is fresh from the bullpen. That's not in the best interest of this party. And I think it would be a big mistake if that were to happen," Brabender said.

Romney's twin victories in Michigan and Arizona make it less likely that another GOP contender will jump into the race.

That may work to Santorum's advantage. He now leads in polls in both Ohio and Tennessee, two key Super Tuesday states.

As for Michigan, Brabender said the campaign is hopeful for a near-even split in Michigan's proportional allocation of delegates.

"We're anxious to see the final results," Brabender told reporters after Santorum's concession speech.

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