CHARLESTON, S.C. — Vowing to go forward, Republican Rick Santorum cast his disappointing third-place finish in this state's primary as a hiccup and pledged Saturday to continue campaigning in a race he called "wide open."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed the top spot in this state's first-in-the-South primary and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claimed second. Undeterred, Santorum did not acknowledge the deficits he faces — chiefly money and momentum — and insisted he would press forward with a campaign that increasingly looked to be on its last legs.
"Let me assure you we will go to Florida and we will go to Arizona," he said before supporters interrupted him with cheers of "We pick Rick."
"I ask you: it's a wide-open race. Join the fight," he urged them at an election night rally at the Citadel.
Santorum eked out a narrow win in lead-off Iowa but lost in a blow-out to Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Santorum had cast South Carolina as a place where he could start a well-financed, traditional campaign, yet he came up well short to Gingrich.
"Three states. Three different winners. What a great country," Santorum said.
For months, Santorum has cast himself as the candidate who can best compare his record with President Barack Obama and pitched himself as the most consistent conservative in the race. The former Pennsylvania senator urged Republicans to stand up for social conservative values and promised to continue his campaign with that unapologetic and, at times, aggressive message.
"This campaign was not going to be about tearing everybody down. It was going to be about negative ads," he said. "It was not going to be about anything other than painting a bold vision for our country. One that believed in the working class values that my grandfather taught to me."
The disadvantages that plagued Santorum early on — lack of money, shell operations, negligible advertising — gave way to a more professional campaign here. He had the money to air ads, hire staff and cover as much ground as possible with a private airplane. Many of his senior advisers had deep roots to the state and in recent days he beamed confidently that South Carolina could give him his second win in an early state.
That win didn't come Saturday and his advisers were shuffling to reset the campaign yet again, this time in costly Florida. His aides planned for him to greet voters near Fort Lauderdale on Sunday and then prepare for two debates in the coming week.
But Florida is a costly state where the campaigns are fought on television ads, not diners and storefronts that were the center of Santorum's strategy to this point. The sheer size of Florida is a challenge for candidates to navigate, although Santorum's tentative plans call for him to focus on just one media market a day.
Santorum's outside allies seemed poised to bankroll supportive ads — at least for now.
"The longer we can keep his candidacy going, the more people can see his qualities," said Foster Friess, a Wyoming businessman and a major contributor to the Red, White and Blue Fund, an outside "super" political committee supporting Santorum. "If you look at Republicans, they always run these old war horses. Santorum is different."
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.