MONTROSE, Colo. — Rick Santorum said Saturday he wants to "endanger" rival Newt Gingrich while presidential rival Ron Paul claimed "the American people are waking up" as both Republican hopefuls peered past Nevada as that state began its GOP caucuses.
Santorum and Paul both campaigned outside of Nevada and instead eyed upcoming contests, signaling neither was likely to change his strategy in a race that seemed to have become a two-man contest between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Gingrich, the former House speaker. With intense rhetoric, both Santorum and Paul assailed Washington in the hopes the topsy-turvy contest for the Republican nomination would yield yet another reshuffling just a month into voting.
"If you're a swing voter, who are you going to believe?" Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, asked a crowd packed into a hotel ballroom here on Colorado's Western Slope. "America is not looking for well-oiled weather vanes. They are looking for leaders."
"The one thing that is on our side is the American people are waking up," countered Ron Paul in a separate speech frequently interrupted by applause and standing ovations from hundreds in a school auditorium in Rochester, Minn.
The Texas congressman didn't mention President Barack Obama or any of his GOP competitors by name, diving instead into a lecture about a need to protect personal liberties, revive the gold standard, abolish the Federal Reserve and shift to a less-interventionist foreign policy.
"Our problems are a lot longer than 3 years old. They've been going on for a long time," Paul said, aiming his barbs at President Woodrow Wilson instead of Obama.
Paul is building off a decent base of support in Minnesota, where he drew nearly 16 percent of the 2008 vote. Organizers were holding "practice caucuses" during his weekend events in Minnesota. He's banking on help from anti-war Republicans and tea party members.
Santorum, meanwhile, planned to visit Minnesota late Saturday after the Nevada caucus results were announced. He planned a full day on Sunday, including a church visit and a stop at the factory that produces the sweater vests his campaign sells for $100 each to raise money.
What he lacks in organization, he is hoping to supplement with sharper criticism.
Santorum's strategy has been to bloody Gingrich, outlast his one-time ally and then emerge as the eventual alternative to front-runner Romney.
Opening his day, Santorum told Republicans here that Washington has gone too far in its environmental policies, especially here in the West. He said over-reaching environmental regulators were trampling on ranchers with a Washington-knows-best approach.
"'We'll make sure that you don't do something to scar the land or endanger a newt,'" Santorum said. "No, not that Newt. I want to endanger that Newt. That's a different story."
It wasn't going to happen in Nevada, though.
Aboard his plane en route to Denver, the former senator got his first results from the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"We're tied with Romney in Searchlight, Nev. That may be the highlight of our day," Santorum told reporters as he landed in Denver. "Please, emphasize 'may.'"
Yet Paul was keeping close tabs on Nevada, where he placed second in 2008 behind Romney. The Texas congressman is hoping for an outright win this time. Advisers believe the state's independent, live-and-let-live ethos is receptive to Paul's libertarian message and that his band of diehard supporters can be counted on to show up at the caucuses.
Paul's campaign has spent $350,000 on television ads in Nevada, just behind Romney, who's spent $371,000, according to the Smart Media Group which tracks political advertising. Gingrich's campaign did not advertise at all on television in Nevada and Santorum placed only a $12,000 cable buy.
"We just don't have those resources," Santorum conceded.
Bakst reported from Rochester, Minn. Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in Nevada contributed to this report.