MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Buoyed by news he edged rival Mitt Romney in Iowa's Republican caucuses, Rick Santorum said Thursday he remained conservatives' best option and urged them to resist calls to rally behind Newt Gingrich.
Santorum underscored his conservative appeal as he picked up the endorsement of James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family. Santorum stood next to another social conservative leader, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, at a news conference announcing the endorsement. Santorum's campaign has placed social issues at the forefront and his advisers are hoping social issues would help him topple Romney, the race's front-runner who stumbled here during his first presidential bid four years ago.
Santorum bested Romney by 34 votes in the final tally of Iowa's caucuses, Republican officials said Thursday. But no winner was declared because some votes remain uncertified two weeks after the event's closest contest ever. The state GOP initially declared Romney the victor — by just 8 votes.
"This is a solid win. It's a much stronger win than the win Gov. Romney claimed to have," Santorum declared.
Romney called the Iowa results a "virtual tie." Santorum called it a sign any calls for him to leave were premature.
"There have been two contests," Santorum said. "We won one."
Romney won the other, New Hampshire.
With Romney running strong in the polls and fundraising, conservatives who oppose his nomination are trying to build a coalition around one of their own before Saturday's primary here. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, said that choice should be him — and not Gingrich, who picked up the endorsement of one-time contender Rick Perry earlier in the day.
"We feel very, very good about what this win will mean," Santorum said of Iowa's fresh results. "It says that we can win elections. We can organize. We can put together an effort to pull the resources together to be able to be successful in being the person who can defeat Mitt Romney. Guess what? We defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa."
Santorum is knitting together a grass-roots organization of socially conservative Republicans, including pastors, similar to that which helped him finish at the top in Iowa.
"Everywhere I go it feels just like Iowa," said Chuck Laudner, who was a senior Iowa adviser to Santorum and now is leading the effort to woo clergy in South Carolina.
Santorum's advisers, however, worried that Romney has an advantage among voters who have already cast absentee ballots.
Santorum urged conservatives to consider his rivals' priorities on social issues.
"Congressman Gingrich routinely puts these issues at the back of the bus and sees them as controversial issues that need to be avoided," he said.
Santorum also urged conservatives to imagine what a head-to-head contest with President Barack Obama will hold.
"If we are going to be successful in this race, we have to nominate someone who is going to make Barack Obama the issue in this race, not be the issue himself in the race," he said. "We can't have a candidate that, every day when you open the newspaper, it's an 'Oh, my — oh, what did he say today?' moment. We need someone who is stable."
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.