David Goldman, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum hugs his wife Karen after speaking to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, in Charleston, S.C.
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Rick Santorum on Thursday pleaded with conservatives not to give up on his presidential hopes, urging them to resist calls to rally behind Newt Gingrich.
"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," Santorum said ahead of the final debate before South Carolina's primary Saturday. "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."
As proof that Santorum still has juice, the former Pennsylvania senator pointed to a new endorsement from James Dobson, who founded the conservative Focus on the Family organization, and updated results from the Iowa caucuses that show Santorum actually edged Mitt Romney in the first state to weigh in on the GOP nomination battle.
"There have been two contests," Santorum said. "We won one."
He made that claim even though the Iowa GOP did not declare a victor because of missing ballots at some precincts.
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 eight votes.
"This is a solid win. It's a much stronger win than the win Gov. Romney claimed to have," Santorum declared.
Romney, who won New Hampshire's primary, called the Iowa results a "virtual tie." Santorum called it a sign that any calls for him to leave were premature.
"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 the one that 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, worry that Romney has an advantage among voters who have already cast absentee ballots. 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. Santorum said that choice should be him — and not Gingrich, who picked up the endorsement of one-time contender Rick Perry earlier in the day.
Looking to motivate the Christian conservatives, Santorum urged voters 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.
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Santorum also urged conservatives to imagine what a head-to-head contest with Obama will hold. He said both Gingrich and Romney had shared Obama's views on the Wall Street bailout and health care mandates in the past, muting potential criticism of the incumbent president.
"How can you differentiate ourselves on the major issues of the day if we nominate Tweedledum and Tweedledee," Santorum told conservatives later in Charleston, "instead of someone who stood up and said, 'No'?"
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.