STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's talk next about a man who has been elbowed to the side of the presidential debates. The Republican candidates leading the polls stand near the center of the stage in those debates. Rick Santorum very briefly won a place in the middle after a strong showing in Iowa. Now he's back on the wing, as Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney battle in the center.
Santorum has not gained much momentum in Florida, the state that is voting next, and he is likely to cut short his time there. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In the first Florida debate, Rick Santorum seemed little more than an afterthought, as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went head to head. But last night in Jacksonville, he was back in the conversation, decrying what he called petty personal politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
RICK SANTORUM: Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that's not the worst thing in the world, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard, and he's going out and working hard. And can you guys leave that alone and focus on the issues?
ELLIOTT: Earlier in the day, Santorum campaigned in the Florida Panhandle, a region where the GOP politics are more akin to neighboring Alabama and Georgia than Miami or Tampa. At a Christian Coalition prayer breakfast in Tallahassee, he defended his campaign's focus on social issues, emphasizing faith and family.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SANTORUM: Everybody says, well, this is the election and this country's just focused on one thing right now: the economy is so bad. And I know it's really bad here in the state of Florida. We've just got to focus on the economy. The word economy comes from the Greek word for home. The first economy is in the home.
ELLIOTT: He hit on similar themes in the recent South Carolina primary, trying to appeal to religious conservative voters, yet still finished a distant third behind Gingrich and Romney. Now, in the much bigger state of Florida, his campaign is lagging. He has not bought any television time in the pricey media markets here. And just getting from one end of the state to the other can be a challenge. The weather didn't help him much yesterday
(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERSTORM)
ELLIOTT: Because of severe storms in the Panhandle, his plane couldn't land in Pensacola for a planned rally. Local GOP leaders spread the word to voters as they arrived at a downtown hotel.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is this where Santorum's speaking?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cancelled.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, it's cancelled?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, no.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, that's sad.
ELLIOTT: The candidate wasn't the only one missing. The campaign had no local workers on hand to answer questions or hand out literature.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do you know where you can get any of his signs?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I do not.
ELLIOTT: Not a single sign or leaflet to be had. Scott Miller, a Republican campaign consultant in Pensacola, says that shows how the Santorum campaign is swamped in Florida.
SCOTT MILLER: It's just expensive, and if you don't already have the mechanism, the ground game here to compete, then you're going to have trouble even showing up.
ELLIOTT: No matter what happens in Florida, Santorum says he's in the race for the long haul. He says the campaign has no debt, but has cash on hand and is thinking strategically. He plans to be out of Florida by Election Day on Tuesday to campaign in Nevada and Colorado.
SANTORUM: We can't let grass grow. I mean, we even debated in South Carolina whether to stick around, because South Carolina Election Day was sort of a wasted day for us. I mean, it's really not a day you can campaign because everybody's - you want your staff all deployed and getting people out to vote. So we were just thinking, what's the best use of my time? It's limited. We've got four more primaries coming up in a week.
ELLIOTT: That strategy is appealing to Kelly Walton in Pensacola.
KELLY WALTON: Rick Santorum is only one statement away, by Newt Gingrich, to being the viable option to Romney.
ELLIOTT: Walton is a self-described member of the anti-Romney coalition.
WALTON: I think Santorum is actually in a very interesting place right now, because he could be the option to Romney before this is over.
ELLIOTT: Given the wild swings of the Republican contest so far, it's hard to count anyone out just yet.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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