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Rick Santorum takes aim at Romney, Paul

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gives a television interview after speaking to supporters at a campaign stop at the Button f
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gives a television interview after speaking to supporters at a campaign stop at the Button f

By Steve Holland

AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum criticized his main rivals in Iowa on Friday in hopes a last-minute wave of support will carry him to victory on Tuesday in the first U.S. election contest of 2012.

Santorum, who has risen to third place in polls in the week before Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, focused his attention on Mitt Romney and Ron Paul during an appearance at a rowdy chicken wings restaurant. Both Romney and Paul are leading Iowa polls.

He said Romney's conservative credentials are in doubt because of his support for U.S. bank bailouts in 2009 and over a healthcare plan he developed for Massachusetts when he was that state's governor.

Democrats say the Romney plan was the model for President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul which conservatives -- and Romney -- want to repeal.

"Iowa wants a solid Republican," Santorum told reporters.

And libertarian Paul cannot be trusted with U.S. national security after he declared he would do little to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, he said.

"Ron Paul is from the Dennis Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party on national security," Santorum said, referring to the liberal Democratic congressman who ran for his party's nomination in 2008. "I don't think that qualifies as a full-throated conservative."

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, spent months on the sidelines of the Republican presidential race looking for support and eager to talk to reporters who largely shunned him.

On Friday, his surge out of single digits in the polls was evident. He was surrounded by a phalanx of television cameras and held court on any number of subjects as he chatted with supporters.

He was cautious about his prospects on Tuesday, saying "we certainly have a shot" but not making predictions about a victory in Iowa, where influential evangelical conservatives have given him a boost.

"I think we're doing well because we've got a very strong message and we've finally been able to get that out," he told Reuters. "People have started to make the decision that we've got a good strong conservative candidate to get behind, and that's what has started to happen here."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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