COLUMBIA, S.C. — Rick Santorum faces a double-barreled challenge in South Carolina: stand up a strong campaign organization while effectively answering an expected onslaught of attacks on his fiscal record.
And do it in a matter of 10 days.
"Please pray for us," Santorum recently told an audience in Greenville. "It's a tough battle every day out there. And we need that hedge of protection."
The former Pennsylvania senator is fighting to consolidate a fractured conservative GOP base in hopes of emerging as the single biggest threat to GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney — and notching his first victory in a state where Republicans for decades have voted in the primary for the party's eventual nominee.
It won't be easy. And not just because Santorum is fighting with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for the support of evangelical voters.
Santorum, popular with social conservatives who fill this state, had focused nearly all of his attention in recent months on Iowa. That means he enters the South Carolina campaign with a weaker organization here than some of his rivals and, certainly, Romney.
So Santorum's team has spent the past week working to fortify a grass-roots network statewide, built upon inroads he made over the past year during regular trips to the state's right-leaning upstate region, where he's banking on a big turnout.
He has a smaller staff here than most of his rivals, but is making an earnest effort at turning out voters statewide. He's visited the state 26 times, has volunteer organizations in 42 of 46 counties and has campaign offices in five cities, including one each in conservative Greenville and Spartanburg in the evangelical-heavy north.
His South Carolina campaign is tied largely to the state's influential evangelical conservative base, much like it was in Iowa. And advisers are trying to ensure the backing of influential Christian pastors, particularly those along the I-85 industrial corridor between Greenville and Spartanburg.
Both Santorum and his allies started running heavy loads of advertising this week to get his message out — and get ahead of criticism of his past political stances.
Parts of the former senator's record make some fiscal conservatives cringe: He voted for federal spending on home-state projects known as earmarks, to raise the debt ceiling and against legislation to limit organized labor's influence. The votes could hurt Santorum in the state's eastern coastal regions where fiscal and economic issues trump cultural ones.
So Santorum has started wielding a pre-emptive answer to attacks on his conservative credentials.
"I'm proud of my record. It's not perfect. Anyone here perfect?" Santorum told South Carolina Republicans during a quick weekend visit to the state, casting himself as the most reliable conservative in the race. "It's not perfect, but it's solid."
In a sign of what's to come, the former Pennsylvania senator was the target of twin attacks Monday.
Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, let loose a 30-second TV ad calling Santorum a "fraud" and labeling Santorum's time in Congress as "a record of betrayal." The ad also describes Santorum as "another serial hypocrite who can't be trusted."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was first to attack Santorum on earmarks in the week before the Iowa caucuses, but with little effect.
And while Perry's South Carolina effort is a last-ditch one to try to save his candidacy, he is using it to bloody Santorum wherever he goes.
"He is not a fiscal conservative," Perry said this week, calling earmarks "the gateway drug to the addiction of spending in Washington, D.C." Also this week, Perry said flatly: "Rick Santorum is the king of earmarks."
Santorum has defended his votes for such projects, saying the money added up to a fraction of federal spending.
"We are focused on a little bit and we're ignoring the elephant in the room," he said Thursday in Hilton Head. He argued for nominating a candidate who can draw a clear contrast with President Barack Obama.
Romney isn't the one, Santorum said.
"We need contrasts, not just a paler shade of what we have," Santorum said
The former senator's vote against a bill to ban compulsory union membership nationally may also cause him trouble as the issue is particularly touchy in South Carolina.
State unemployment has dropped to just below 10 percent due to manufacturers such as BMW, Fuji and Michelin expanding in the state because the law blocks mandatory union membership. The law is at the heart of the National Labor Relations Board's challenge to Boeing's decision to build a new airplane plant in South Carolina.
"Standing on the opposite side of right-to-work is a costly proposition in this state," said Adam Temple, a Republican operative who worked on 2008 presidential candidate John McCain's South Carolina campaign.
Santorum signed a pledge to support national right-to-work legislation as president. He also has defended his vote by arguing in part that unions, powerful in his home state of Pennsylvania, also are forces of good in the community.
Santorum's backers hope that if he takes a hit with fiscal conservatives he'll make up for it with big support among social conservatives, given his rock-solid opposition to abortion and gay rights.
That's what attracted Violet Stephens to Santorum.Comment on this story
"He has the message that relates to the issues I feel strongly about," said the retired preschool teacher from Greenville. "He's a good Christian man."
Joe Mack, a Santorum supporter and former public policy director for the state's Southern Baptist Conference, predicted that attacks on Santorum's votes in Congress likely won't work in South Carolina, especially among voters who put cultural issues first. Mack said momentum for Santorum will build if he can get his message across to evangelicals.
"The next several days will be critical for him," Mack said.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.