NASHVILLE — Short on money and staff, Rick Santorum needs help to remain a viable threat to front-runner Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. One strategist hopes it will come from another rival, Newt Gingrich.
Top adviser John Brabender says Santorum's future may depend upon Gingrich leaving the race. The former House speaker is showing no signs of bowing out, certainly not before next week's Super Tuesday voting.
"If we could ever make this where we have all the conservatives and tea party supporters behind us as one candidate against Mitt Romney, we'll win the nomination," Brabender said Wednesday as the Santorum campaign recalibrated after finishing a disappointing second in Michigan's primary.
Santorum and Gingrich are appealing for support from the same bloc of conservative voters. In Michigan, where Gingrich didn't actively compete, the former speaker earned more than 6 percent of the vote. Romney beat Santorum by roughly 3 percentage points.
As Super Tuesday nears, Gingrich's campaign is focusing on Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years, and a handful of other delegate-rich states. A Gingrich spokesman confirmed Wednesday that there's been no pressure from Santorum's camp to leave the race.
Santorum went out of his way to compliment the former House speaker Wednesday at a rally in Knoxville, Tenn., as he recalled the impact of President Ronald Reagan and others early in his political career.
"I even give credit to Speaker Gingrich when I was thinking of running for the House of Representatives, as a great educator as he is," Santorum said. "It was important for me to understand who we are. Reagan did a lot of that education, and give Newt credit for doing a lot more."
Asked if Santorum needs Gingrich to drop out, Brabender replied, "We either need that or we need Gingrich's supporters" to shift in Santorum's direction.
Even if they did, the Santorum campaign remains underfunded and understaffed. Volunteers play key roles for the campaign in states where Romney has had professional operations for weeks.
Santorum is running a "MacGyver campaign," Brabender said, a reference to the scrappy television hero who seemingly conquered every situation with a Swiss Army knife and duct tape. But success on Super Tuesday — it features elections in 10 states — may require more than MacGyver's bag of tricks.
In addition to Washington state, which holds GOP caucuses Saturday, Santorum will aggressively target at least four Super Tuesday states: Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia, campaign manager Mike Biundo said. The campaign doesn't yet have paid staff in each of those states. For example, a group of roughly 30 volunteers staff an office in Georgia.
"The true believers are out there killing themselves for us," Biundo said.
Romney won't make things easy on Santorum's ragtag team. A group allied with Romney spent more than $2 million Wednesday alone on anti-Santorum television commercials that will run in each of Santorum's target states, among others. The ads already running in Tennessee blast Santorum's spending record in Congress, charging that Washington corrupted his values.
Santorum's media presence is far smaller. A spokeswoman couldn't immediately say where he's running ads.
Santorum is depending on reaching voters the old-fashioned way. He's hosting multiple public events that will take him to Tennessee, Georgia, Washington state and Ohio.
"We're heading into Super Tuesday with a lot of wind at our back," Santorum declared at a Nashville rally Wednesday night.
Momentum wasn't enough in Michigan, where Santorum struggled to defend statements about the separation of church and state and about education — he called President Barack Obama a "snob" for wanting all Americans to attend college. His polling numbers fell in the days before the primary.
Santorum may be planning to tweak his message to focus more on his personal story, but his advisers suggest he will not hide from charged social issues. Still, potential supporters can expect to hear a broad message from Santorum in the coming days.
Brabender said the themes will include energy policy, small-town America, family values and a greater emphasis on his personal story, particularly the influence of his 93-year-old mother.
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"He is always going to have to struggle by responding to misperceptions that are out there," Brabender said. "The way that you solve that sometimes is to let people into your life and see a picture of you that you don't always share."
He'll get some help from state and local Republican parties, which have helped plan events for the understaffed Santorum in recent weeks. And groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life advocate, pitched in as well this week, devoting $200,000 to a pro-Santorum Ohio radio campaign.
Before he left Tennessee Wednesday night, Santorum asked the crowd for more help.
"Don't just go and vote. That's not doing your duty," he said. "Be a part of something big."