Florida supporters stay loyal to lagging Santorum

CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 21: Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at his primary-night event on January 21, 2012 in Mark Clark Hall at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took first place in the South Carolina Primary, with Santorum placing third. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Rick Santorum
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

NAPLES, Fla. -- The media narrative may be that the Republican race here has settled into a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but Rick Santorum isn't buying into it. Neither are his fervent supporters.

"I believe in miracles," Yvonne Fisher, a committed Santorum voter from Naples, said minutes after the candidate wrapped up his speech at a Baptist church here on Wednesday morning. "I believe that God can get the right man through."

As the former Pennsylvania senator addressed an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred who had gathered inside the worship hall, he paced back and forth across the stage, gesticulating to emphasize his points.

With a wireless microphone pinned to his shirt collar, two jumbo screens on either side of the stage, and a giant cross hanging on the wall behind him, Santorum cut the image of a mega-church preacher as he implored his partisan audience not to settle on either of the GOP front-runners.

Many in the crowd nodded and clapped as Santorum spoke of the connection between social and fiscal conservatism, his concerns about the devaluation of marriage in modern life, and the magnitude of the threat posed by radical Islam.

But the crowd appeared even more enthusiastic when he made the case for his own electability.

"Barack Obama knows the keys to this election are the swing states -- in particular, in the industrial heartland of our country," Santorum said. "The Reagan Democrats -- those blue-collar Democrats who swung for Reagan and provided a 49-state victory."

After joking that he felt like "selling popcorn" while Romney and Gingrich tussled during the first 20 minutes of Monday night's presidential debate, Santorum argued that the face-off actually demonstrated that he is the contender best positioned to win in November.

"What you saw is what's hopefully becoming evident, which is the weakness of the candidates that are in this race when it comes to matching up against Barack Obama," he said. "We need someone who . . . isn't going to be the issue in the campaign. We need someone who's going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign."

The line drew the longest standing ovation and loudest cheers during Santorum's appearance, and it resonated strongly with at least one man in the crowd, who said during the question-and-answer session afterward that he came to the event undecided but was now committed to voting for him.

"Can I make a suggestion to everyone here?" the man said. "You know these great Rick Santorum signs? When you park your car, put them as the sunshade in your car."

Though Santorum has fallen far behind Romney and Gingrich in the most recent Florida polls, he has maintained double-digit support here, and his presence figures to be a critical factor in the outcome of Tuesday's voting.

In a recent PPP (D) poll, Gingrich was the second-choice of 31 percent of Santorum voters, while Romney was the next option for only 15 percent of those who planned to vote for the former senator.

But conversations with several Santorum supporters did not reveal a willingness among any of them to compromise on their vote, even though some admitted that Gingrich appeared to be in a better position to win.

"I like Newt for his feistiness, but I worry about his consistency," said Chuck Vitale of Naples. "In some ways, it's too bad we already started our early voting. I think Santorum's standing will improve as he crisscrosses Florida."

Randy Long, who voted for Mike Huckabee in 2008, said that Santorum "doesn't waffle" and cited the candidate's strong family values as primary reasons he had earned his vote.

Asked about Gingrich, Long cited concerns about the former speaker's character, which several other Santorum supporters echoed.

"I'm not sure where his morals are," Long said of Gingrich. "He carries a lot of baggage."

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.