Rick Santorum is poised to establish himself as the top conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, a day after jolting the Republican US presidential race by coming within eight votes of winning the Iowa caucuses.
Mr Romney barely defeated Mr Santorum in Iowa, where the party held its first contest in the race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama. Until recently, Mr Santorum had been polling in the low single-digits and was seen as having little hope of being a top contender.
Mr Romney’s win helped solidify his standing as front-runner going into next Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, where he is heavily favoured. But he has not been able to raise his support beyond the 25% level in national opinion polls. He won just under 25% of the vote in Iowa.
Some Republicans see Mr Romney, a former governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts, as insufficiently conservative on abortion, health care and other issues. As other conservative candidates drop out, that could create an opening for Mr Santorum, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage.
The Republican field narrowed yesterday with congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race after coming last in Iowa.
But Mr Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has significant hurdles to climb if he hopes to prove that he is not the latest in a series of challengers who briefly topped polls only to fade quickly – like Ms Bachmann, Texas governor Rick Perry and House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich.
After hinting that he might drop out, Mr Perry announced he would stay in the race. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses hoping to make his mark in the New Hampshire primary.
It will be difficult for Mr Santorum to recreate his success in Iowa, where he had campaigned almost non-stop for months. He has only a skeleton staff in other states and very little money.
Mr Romney is much better placed in terms of campaign staff and financing. He has campaigned as the candidate best-positioned to defeat Mr Obama. Yesterday he gained the endorsement of the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain.
“The time has arrived for Republicans to choose a presidential nominee, a new standard bearer who has the ability and determination to defeat President Obama,” Mr McCain said.
But there were indications that help was on the way for Mr Santorum. He has already seen a surge in online donations, which crippled his campaign’s website shortly after the Iowa results were announced. Campaign manager Mike Biundo has said the campaign’s fund-raising pace has tripled over the last week.
Even so, Mr Santorum has struggled in recent months to afford basics such as air fare and rental cars. He has been largely ignored in the debates and his lengthy record in the US Senate has yet to be fully scrutinised, meaning attacks are likely.
He faced questions yesterday about his statements on same-sex relationships, his support for a prescription drug benefit for OAPs and his work on programmes for black people.
Mr Santorum previewed his likely pitch in an email, saying the time had come for divided conservative voters – as well as conservative, anti-tax tea party activists and so-called values voters – to embrace him.
“We can either unite now behind one candidate and have a conservative standard bearer in 2012, or have the Republican establishment choose another moderate Republican who will have a difficult time defeating Barack Obama in November,” he wrote.
It was a clear slap at Mr Romney and an indication that he would not shirk from assailing his chief opponent as he looks to emerge as the consensus conservative candidate.