It's "lull week'" in the Republican presidential race until a February 22 debate on CNN
Mitt Romney wins Maine caucuses and Saturday's CPAC straw poll
Rick Santorum says it's a two-man race between himself and Romney
Ron Paul continues his quest for delegates, influence
It’s “lull week” in the Republican presidential campaign, an 11-day stretch with no primaries or caucuses and no debates, but lots of questions about who will eventually win the nomination to face President Barack Obama in November.
The topsy-turvy race has seen leaders come and go, with presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney receiving steady but so far somewhat stagnant support in his second bid for the GOP nod.
Conservative challenger Rick Santorum upended the process last week by winning all three contests on Tuesday to boost his chances and reshape the competition.
However, Romney regained some luster Saturday by winning both the Maine caucuses and a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of the political right.
The next major event in the campaign is a February 22 debate on CNN, followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28 and the Washington state caucuses on March 3.
Then comes the campaign’s major decisive moment on March 6 – Super Tuesday, when 10 states will decide who gets the 437 delegates at stake. It is the biggest single-day total of the race.
Flush with momentum and cash – more than $3 million raised since his February 7 sweep of non-binding contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado – Santorum told CNN on Sunday he has eclipsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Romney for Republican voters.
“We think this is a two-person race right now,” Santorum said on CNN’s “State of the Union” in reference to himself and Romney. “We’re focused on making sure that folks know that we’re the best alternative to Barack Obama.”
His comments follow new poll results that show the former Pennsylvania senator surging in the race. Gallup’s national daily tracking poll on Saturday indicated Santorum in second place with 24% behind Romney at 34%. Meanwhile, Gingrich fell to third place with 17% support.
In addition, a new survey released Friday showed Santorum in first place in Tennessee, which holds its primary on Super Tuesday, followed by Romney in second and Gingrich in third.
Gingrich has seen his standing drop in recent weeks since his lone primary victory in South Carolina, and he had no events or talk show interviews Sunday. He is depending on strong showings in Super Tuesday races in other Southern states – particularly Georgia, which he represented in Congress – to resurrect his campaign.
However, Santorum’s stronger showing in all of the recent contests, including the CPAC straw poll Saturday, indicates that the former senator has gained the advantage over Gingrich among tea party conservatives who are crucial for either candidate’s chances.
Clearly enjoying his revitalized status, Santorum continued to tout his social conservative appeal on Sunday.
He was asked on the NBC program “Meet the Press” about the observation that his trademark sweater vests and boy-next-door persona prompted comparisons to Richie Cunningham, the all-American character played by Ron Howard on the television show “Happy Days.”
In view of some of the things going on in American popular culture, Santorum responded, “a little bit of Richie Cunningham wouldn’t be a bad thing for our society right now.”
He also displayed some street-fighter qualities of his campaign, suggesting on CNN that Romney won the CPAC straw poll by paying supporters to show up and vote, a tactic he said fellow candidate Ron Paul also has used in the past.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s absolutely a strategy. We just don’t think that’s a good use of our resources, and Gov. Romney, obviously, you know, may have a different idea,” Santorum told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.
Responding to Santorum’s comments, Romney’s campaign said “Santorum has a history of making statements that aren’t grounded in the truth” and pointed to Romney’s win in the Maine caucuses Saturday night, as well as a separate nationwide survey of conservatives conducted by CPAC organizers
“Conservative voters recognize that in order to change Washington, we need someone who isn’t a creature of Washington,” Andrea Saul, Romney spokeswoman, said in a statement.
So far, Santorum and Romney each have won four primaries or caucuses to one for Gingrich and none for Paul, the libertarian champion and U.S. congressman from Texas who hoped to get his first victory Saturday in Maine.
Instead, Paul finished a close second at 36% to Romney’s 39%, with Santorum at 18% and Gingrich at 6% on a day when bad weather prevented some caucus sites from completing their work.
Romney has deep ties in the state: He won its caucuses in 2008, and has long been active in the state’s Republican politics as a leading political figure in nearby Massachusetts. Santorum and Gingrich did not actively compete in Maine.
“We were a little bit disappointed last night, but we were disappointed that the one county where we have done the best in the past and we were expected to do the best … they canceled their caucus,” Paul told the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Asked to assess his chances, Paul noted that the other candidates, including Romney, have been “up and down” so far.
“I haven’t been down. I keep going up,” Paul said, later adding: “We live in an age where things change rather rapidly politically and economically and certainly in foreign policy. Things change. So this whole ballgame can change rather rapidly.”
Paul has said his strategy is to compete in states like Maine, where he can be competitive, and gather up delegates while bypassing others to save time and money. Ultimately, he says, that will keep him in the race until the Republican National Convention in August.
On Sunday, he took aim at Santorum and Gingrich, questioning the perception that they have the best conservative credentials among the Republican contenders.
“I don’t think they have been vetted very well because I know them pretty well, and their records are far from being conservative,” Paul said, later including Romney when he added: “I think that all of them are rather typical of what’s wrong with the country, you know, that they don’t have firm convictions.”
For Romney, a bad week ended on a good note with his twin victories Saturday that followed a speech at the CPAC gathering Friday in which he touted his record as a “severe conservative.”
“I’m in this race because I believe that America can be turned around, that we don’t have to accept unemployment over 8%, a national debt that is as large as our entire economy, and a president who, even as his own policies fail, apologizes for America’s past successes,” said a Romney statement released after the Maine results were announced.
However, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told reporters Sunday that Romney needs to better hone his message if he wants to win widespread conservative support eluding him so far.
“He needs to really convince the tea party grassroots movement that he doesn’t want to just manage …. the decline of our economy but he’ll really do all that he can to cut taxes, to rein in government growth, to get people off this government dependency that we see increased in order to really save our republic and get people back to work,” Palin said, echoing similar comments she made Saturday at the CPAC gathering.
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Casey Riddle and Shannon Travis contributed to this report.