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Santorum makes bid for middle ground in South Carolina

U.S. Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks as his wife Karen looks on during a campaign stop at The Clo
U.S. Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks as his wife Karen looks on during a campaign stop at The Clo

By Samuel P. Jacobs and Colleen Jenkins

LEXINGTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made his closing argument on Friday to South Carolina primary voters: Vote for me because I won't leave you hot and I won't leave you cold.

Trailing in polls and failing to draw big crowds at campaign events, the former Pennsylvania senator pitched himself as the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"You have one candidate that is a little too radioactive, a little too hot," Santorum said about Gingrich, accused by rivals of being long-winded and "grandiose."

"What he says and what he does, the positions he's taking, and the comments he's making, (are) just too much about that candidate," he told a crowd at Hudson's Smokehouse BBQ in Lexington.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, characterized Romney as the cold candidate "who doesn't have bold plans."

Santorum, 53, won the Iowa caucuses on January 3, despite having a smaller campaign organization than Romney and less experience than Gingrich. He fell to the back of the pack in the New Hampshire primary last week however and has not recovered, despite endorsement from Christian evangelical leaders.

In a fight with Gingrich for the conservative vote, Santorum put in what was probably his best debate performance on Thursday night in South Carolina.

"We were undecided until the debate last night. He was more assertive than we have seen him in the past. I saw a little bit more leadership," Brian Sheridan, 37, a pastor from Lexington, South Carolina, said.

Gingrich has made a last-minute surge in polls, but Santorum could split the conservative vote and help Romney win the contest and all but seal the Republican nomination race.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Thursday showed Santorum in third place behind Romney and Gingrich.

THIN CROWDS

Crowds were thin at two Santorum events in Spartanburg on Wednesday and also at his appearance alongside evangelical leader Tony Perkins at a waterfront park in Mount Pleasant on Thursday. On Friday, a lunchtime crowd of 100 showed up to hear Santorum but many were children, too young to vote.

In South Carolina, where 60 percent of Republican voters said they were evangelical in the 2008 election, many of Santorum's events focus on faith.

A town hall on Friday had a revival feel as members of the audience were invited to give testimonials on behalf of Santorum, a devout Catholic with seven children and strong anti-abortion views.

"We will answer to God for who we vote for," said Peggy Trent, 45, a mother of eight children from Columbia. Amens rang out from the crowd.

Some voters who have heard Santorum speak say that he is not yet up to the challenge of the campaign.

At the "Presidential Pro-Life Forum" by Personhood USA in Greenville on Wednesday night, Susan Swanson, 63, of North Augusta said she liked Gingrich and Santorum but felt the former House speaker was better equipped to take on Obama in November.

"It's going to be a tough election with the president," Swanson said.

"Give Santorum 10 or 15 years," said Ed Cheeck, 62, a chaplain from Columbia. "I'm supporting the speaker. This is Newt's last rodeo. He is a terrific young man, but this is not his year."

For his part, Santorum is asking South Carolina voters to believe in him - if only for one more day.

"Help us out," he said. "Take a bumper sticker. Heck, you only have to put it on for 24 hours. It will come right off after 24 hours."

Santorum, who lost his 2006 Senate race by 18 points, has said that he will be the most competitive Republican candidate throughout the Midwest during the general election.

"Nobody else in this race has ever beat a Democratic incumbent," Santorum said at a Spartanburg restaurant on Wednesday.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Stacey Joyce)

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