LONE TREE, Colo. — Shrugging off expected losses in Florida's primary, Rick Santorum cast the fight for the Republican presidential nomination as a long slog and said Tuesday's results from the largest contest to date were unlikely to force him or Ron Paul from the race.
"No matter what happens in Florida, this race is wide open," Santorum said. "We plan on being in this campaign for a while."
The topsy-turvy race has crowned three winners in the first three states, and Florida's race had become a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Conceding the costly, large and diverse state to them, Santorum and Paul headed West to try to lay the groundwork for upcoming contests.
"If you don't like the way the race is going right now, just wait a week or two," Santorum laughed as he began the day in Colorado, which holds its caucuses a week from Tuesday. He was headed to Nevada to await the Florida results.
"You have a chance to change this race. You have a chance to put up a conservative who can win," Santorum said.
Paul did not mention Florida or any Republican opponents during a stop with more than 1,000 supporters, many of them students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Instead, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman focused on his bedrock issues: cutting spending and upholding the Constitution.
"All we have to do is return to our constitutional form of government, and we can get out of this mess in no time," said Paul, garnering loud cheers for a blast at U.S. foreign policy. "We need to keep America safe, but not to be the policeman of the world."
Santorum met with a more somber, 300-person crowd at a golf club in the Denver suburb of Lone Tree. The winner in Iowa, he looked ahead to caucuses Saturday in Nevada and next week in Colorado.
"I know a lot of folks focus on the early states," the former Pennsylvania said. "But this race is going to go on for a while."
He said criticism of Romney and Gingrich was misguided and only helps Democrats, but then turned caustic.
"We cannot have leaders who are unpredictable or lack the conviction to do what's necessary," he said of Gingrich.
Two voters raised Gingrich's infidelity and one asked Santorum to make a campaign issue out of Gingrich's three marriages.
Santorum said Gingrich had been open about his past but that "character matters. It's the issue of trust. Do you trust somebody who has done things that you question, whether it's in their personal life or professional life?"
But he also said people can learn from their mistakes.
"Our job is to forgive people if they ask for forgiveness," Santorum said. "I don't question his sincerity of his repentance.