Santorum camp: Gingrich should get out of the race

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at his election night rally at Steubenville High School, Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Steubenville, Ohio. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Rick Santorum
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at his election night rally at Steubenville High School, Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Steubenville, Ohio.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
(CBS News) LENEXA, Kan. - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, whose impressive Super Tuesday performance cemented his standing as the major challenger to front-runner Mitt Romney, said Wednesday he is agnostic about whether Newt Gingrich should get of the race and give Santorum the chance to compete one-on-one with Romney.

But you would never know it by the actions of his campaign staff.

Indeed, while the candidate was blowing diplomatic rhetorical kisses to Gingrich, top Santorum strategists were beating the drum for the former House speaker to step aside. And if he won't, conservatives and tea party supporters should pressure him to oblige, they said.

John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist, said, "We are calling on Tea Party supporters and conservatives to rally behind the only candidate that has demonstrated over and over again he's the one that can compete against Mitt Romney." He added, "If conservatives and tea party supporters unite behind Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney will not be the nominee."

On Wednesday morning, Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the Red White and Blue fund, a super PAC supporting Santorum, was more direct: "Based on his electoral performance last night and his out-of-step record, it is time for Newt Gingrich to exit the Republican nominating process."

Santorum's aides maintain that the support Gingrich has received in recent contests - such as the 6.5 percent he received in Michigan - would have otherwise gone to Santorum and given him a victory over Romney rather than a second-place finish.

The candidate himself told reporters he would not personally call on Gingrich to step aside after Gingrich won just one Super Tuesday contest, his home state of Georgia. By contrast, Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma, two states that Gingrich had targeted, and also North Dakota. Santorum held Romney to a narrow win in the biggest prize of the night, the battleground state of Ohio.

"People should stay in the race as long as they feel they should stay in the race, and you know, I'm going to stay in the race because we are doing really well," Santorum told reporters after a rally in Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City.

Asked specifically about his campaign's efforts to get conservatives and Tea Party supporters to pressure Gingrich out of the race, Santorum said, "If they're doing so, they're not doing so at my knowledge, let's just put it that way."

"I'm not saying I don't want him to get out," he said. "If he wants to get out, I'm all for him getting out. I'm all for Mitt Romney getting out. I'm for everybody getting out. I wish President Obama would just hand me the thing. But that's not going to happen."

A direct display of public pressure on Gingrich to drop out by Santorum could alienate potential Republican primary voters in upcoming contests.

The former senator from Pennsylvania also said that Kansas, which votes on Saturday, is a must-win for him. "This race is going to change again in the next week and Kansas will lead the charge," he told a group of a few hundred supporters during a rally at a graphics manufacturing plant. "We had a good night last night, but so did Governor Romney. That's why we have to start anew here. We have to do well here in Kansas. ... No, we have to win here in Kansas. And win big."

  • Rebecca Kaplan On Twitter»

    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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