MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Political ads are now running almost constantly during the commercial breaks on TV here, and most of them are attack ads. Mitt Romney's "super PAC" Restore Our Future is attacking Newt Gingrich and Gingrich's "super PAC" Winning Our Future is attacking Romney. And, as if to validate his newfound status as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum is now being attacked in TV ads, one by Ron Paul's campaign and another by Romney's "super PAC."
Asked about one of those ads during a town-hall event in Florence on Sunday, Santorum struggled to find words for the pro-Romney PAC's ad, which accuses him of wanting to extend voting rights to felons. "That is a lie," the former Pennsylvania senator said at Percy & Willie's restaurant. "To go and mislead the people of South Carolina as to what our record is on this is just… yuck. I expect that from Barack Obama. I don't expect it from a Republican running for president."
Santorum's own ads are relentlessly positive. One of his ads running here features images of Santorum with his wife and seven children and calls him "a trusted conservative who gives us the best chance to take back America." Even the ads from the pro-Santorum "super PAC" (the Red, White & Blue Fund) are positive, portraying him as "a principled conservative" who is "determined and will never waiver." That ad features footage of Santorum's speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses, in which he said, "What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts, and a plan that includes everyone… a plan that says we will work together to get America to work."
Santorum is not afraid to draw "sharp contrasts" with Obama. During his speech Sunday morning at the Faith & Freedom Coalition's prayer breakfast here, he spoke of America's transformational influence in the world: "We're the wealthiest country in the world and the world is wealthier because they have become more like us. We've transformed humankind. And we have a president who sees all of that as a mistake." In a speech that highlighted themes of faith and American exceptionalism, Santorum told the audience of more than 350 at the Sheraton Convention Center, "People ask, 'How are you going to unite us together?' Remind every American who we are. This president reminds us of what divides us, not what unites us."
His ambition of uniting Americans, however, is dependent upon Santorum's ability to unite conservatives behind his campaign. That ambition got a boost over the weekend when a group of evangelical leaders meeting in Texas voted to endorse him. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said it was a "strong consensus" in Santorum's favor and, while some wondered whether the endorsement might be too late in the campaign to help, Perkins said it "could be exactly the right time," given the influence of social conservatives in South Carolina.
That influence was apparent during the Sunday afternoon town-hall event in Florence, where the crowd inside the restaurant applauded when Santorum said, "America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise." And they applauded again when Santorum took aim at Obama, saying the way the president is "constantly pitting one group against another" is "disgusting."
Most polls currently show Santorum in third place in South Carolina, but his campaign believes they will finish strong here, as they did with their phenomenal last-minute surge in Iowa. "We are on fire," former congressman Gresham Barrett, Santorum's state campaign chairman, said while introducing the candidate in Florence. Santorum will have two chances to add fuel to that fire this week, with televised debates tonight in Myrtle Beach (9 p.m., Fox News) and Thursday in Charleston (8 p.m., CNN). And the debate stage will be slightly less crowded, because former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will reportedly drop out of the presidential race today and endorse Romney.
Many pundits saw that development as further evidence of Romney's "inevitability," but Santorum clearly believes that South Carolinians are willing to ignore the pundits who have discounted his chances of scoring an upset victory here. "Vote your conscience. Vote your values," he told the people crowded inside the restaurant in Florence. "Stand up and fight for what you know is right."
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