GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Dealt a resounding defeat in Illinois' presidential primary, Republican Rick Santorum brushed off the latest loss to rival Mitt Romney and told his supporters on Tuesday to "saddle up like Reagan did in the cowboy movies" and help him narrow a seemingly insurmountable deficit in delegates.
Santorum had hoped to make a real contest of Illinois, the birthplace of actor turned president Ronald Reagan, but he was outspent in advertising by a 7-to-1 margin by Romney and his allies and fled the state before balloting began.
"We're heading to Louisiana for the rest of the week, then we're back here in Pennsylvania and we're going to pick up a whole boatload of delegates and close this gap and then on to victory," he told a packed hotel ballroom in Gettysburg, Pa., as more than 1,000 supporters waited outside.
Santorum won the Southern states of Alabama and Mississippi last week. Romney has not posted a win in the South since his January triumph in Florida.
"We're feeling very, very good about winning Louisiana on Saturday," Santorum said to cheers.
A 10-day break follows Louisiana before Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin have primaries on April 3. Santorum is not on the ballot in the nation's capital, the latest example of his campaign's struggle to organize.
But Santorum has shown new signs of political life. Aides said the campaign raised more than $9 million in February and has more than $2.6 million on hand for a Republican primary that shows no sign of ending soon.
Santorum campaign sought to downplay the Illinois results, instead looking at adding delegates from rural areas to Santorum's column in any sum.
"People are getting too focused on winning states. That's not the contest anymore. The contest is winning your share of stuff," longtime Santorum adviser John Brabender told reporters.
Brabender also suggested that Santorum would overtake Romney if flailing rival Newt Gingrich were not a factor in the campaign, but he stopped short of calling on him to exit.
"It's time for Gingrich supporters to get behind us if they truly want to have a conservative candidate. It's up to Newt Gingrich to decide what his future is," he said.
Brabender suggested that Gingrich could be "an important voice for our campaign" if he were to bow out and that the Santorum campaign would gladly hire Gingrich's former aides.
"The question that they all have to ask themselves, I believe, is: Is the goal truly to have a conservative to be our nominee?" he said. "If that's the case, then I think you can only come to one conclusion: It's time to unify."
Santorum already was looking ahead to Pennsylvania, five weeks away.
"We were just overwhelmed with the response here. I feel welcome by the response to be back home in Pennsylvania," said Santorum, who now lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb in Virginia.
He hastened to add, however, that his seven children were born in Pennsylvania.
"I come as a son of Pennsylvania, someone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania," Santorum said, turning to his family. "I learned everything, everything about freedom and opportunity and hard work growing up with folks who worked in the mills and the mines in Western Pennsylvania."
He also took aim at Romney, who is on track to capture the GOP nomination in June unless the race shifts dramatically.
"This is an election not about who's the best person to manage Washington," he said. "It's great to have Wall Street experience. I don't have Wall Street experience. But I have experience growing up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania."1 comment on this story
He also cast Romney as a political opportunist whose views shifted with political trends.
"We need someone who has a strong and clear record who can appeal to voters all across this country. Someone you can trust," Santorum said. "Someone who will stand and fight, not just because it's what the pollster tells them to say or what is on their teleprompter."
Santorum has neither. He urged supporters in the state he once represented in the House and Senate that he needs them now, perhaps more than ever as his campaign looks to steady itself after losing Illinois and Saturday's blowout in Puerto Rico.
"We must go out and nominate someone who understands, not because some pollster tells them, but because they know in their gut," Santorum said before invoking Reagan, a conservative icon. "Join us to saddle up like Reagan did in the cowboy movies, to saddle up and take on that responsibility over the next five weeks."