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Gingrich vs. Santorum
The not-Romneys clash.


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Robert Costa

Conservative opponents of Mitt Romney are nervous. If Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich continue to battle for the primary’s non-Romney, non-libertarian slot, the former Massachusetts governor could coast toward the GOP convention as the indubitable front-runner.

Maybe, supporters of both candidates say, the other will come to his senses and drop out, uniting Romney’s opposition behind their guy — the true conservative who can beat Romney and President Obama.

But if the past week offers any clue, it’s this: Don’t bet on it.

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Tensions between the Santorum and Gingrich camps are growing. Santorum advisers are irked at Gingrich’s public attempts to nudge their candidate out of the race; Gingrich aides are frustrated by Santorum’s quixotic determination, his unwillingness to cede the anti-establishment mantle.

Earlier this week, in a Fox News interview, Gingrich verbalized his inner circle’s agitation. “The longer conservatives stay split, the harder it’s going to be for us to [beat Romney],” he said. “We risk not being able to beat Obama unless we get a conservative. I have to win the nomination.”

Santorum confidants chuckle at Gingrich’s declaration. “Gingrich’s stock is falling, and we’re picking up a lot of his people,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. “People know that we need an alternative to Mitt Romney. But Gingrich had his shot in Florida, and he failed.”

Brabender predicts that during the month of February, with only one debate and a slew of caucuses, Santorum will assert himself as the viable Romney challenger. And if Gingrich continues to issue hubristic statements, conservatives will sour on the former speaker.

“Gingrich has been trying to push us out, and people find it offensive,” Brabender says. “We’re not going to tell him to get out of the race; that’s a personal decision.”

The timing of Gingrich’s comments — they came around the time Santorum was tending to Bella, his hospitalized daughter — inflamed the fractious relations between the two campaigns. “The mere fact that he was doing it smells of political opportunism and people found it problematic and troubling,” Brabender says.

“Beyond that, I won’t talk about Gingrich,” Brabender says. “I will compliment Governor Romney and Congressman Paul. Their campaigns personally reached out to us [regarding Bella]. None of that was expected, so I won’t criticize anybody for not doing it. But that was very sincere and gratifying.”

Speaking on background, a handful of Gingrich advisers acknowledge that they could have “played the weekend message a little better, been a little more careful about angering Santorum,” as one surrogate puts it. Other Gingrich backers say that as Romney surges, there is not enough time to wait, that Gingrich must begin to showcase his strengths and Santorum’s shortcomings.

Still, from what NRO can glean from behind-the-scenes chatter, Gingrich will not forcefully tell Santorum to bow out. Instead, in coming days, select Gingrich aides will reach out to major Republicans who are close to Santorum, delicately asking them to chat with Santorum about his path ahead, what’s best for his family, and about the need to beat Romney.



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