Republican Santorum heads home as he lags in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Florida Fri Jan 27, 2012 11:32pm GMT

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Trailing in opinion polls, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum headed home to Pennsylvania on Friday for a short visit, effectively turning his back on the Florida primary that has become a two-man race between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

While Romney and Gingrich battle it out in Florida, Santorum is returning to attend a fundraiser, prepare his tax returns for release and hold a news conference in West Chester.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday showed Santorum on only 13 percent in Florida, way back in third place.

Santorum, a devout Catholic who has tried to position himself as the social conservative alternative to Romney, dismissed speculation he might quit after Florida.

"I will make an absolute statement; there hasn't been a discussion and not even approaching a discussion to discuss a discussion as to whether to get out of this race," he told CNN.

He plans to return to Florida on the weekend for final campaigning but he has been is unable to compete with Romney and Gingrich in spending on TV ads in the big Florida markets. Santorum is now looking beyond Tuesday's primary here.

"We're focused on Nevada and Colorado where we think there are more opportunities for us," he said on Thursday after giving a speech on "Faith, Family, and Freedom" to a group of about 200 college students at Florida State University. "We're going to stay in this race for the long haul."

WAITING FOR GINGRICH SLIP?

Asked if he was banking on a slip up by Gingrich to allow him to emerge as the alternative to Romney, Santorum said:

"The fact is that other candidates in the race have a lot of problems that make their candidacy less than optimal for the Republicans in this general election ... Lots of things are going to happen between now and August."

Though Santorum narrowly won the Iowa primary - the first contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican presidential nomination to challenge President Barack Obama on November 6 - he has since faded as Gingrich has outperformed him in debates and tapped into support from social conservatives and the Tea Party faithful.

"Santorum appears to be doomed and his candidacy looks foolish, but if anybody could commit a colossal error in this race it's Gingrich - he likes to throw verbal hand grenades," said Ed Costantini, emeritus professor of political science at University of California, Davis.

Santorum has questioned the conservative credentials of his two main rivals, Gingrich and Romney, portraying them as flip-floppers and too conciliatory on fiscal and social issues.

Pam Olsen, the leader of the International House of Prayer, a Christian group in Tallahassee, said she was backing Santorum, the father of seven children, because his commitment to family values has never wavered.

"He's the right person at this time in history to get America back in the right direction," she said.

Santorum's stump speech often includes a fire-and-brimstone and angry criticism of what he regards as government policies that limit freedom.

For dramatic effect at Florida State University, Santorum threw a palm-sized book onto the floor to symbolize that the declaration of independence and the constitution were under attack by "modern, progressive, liberal" values that "will destroy America."

He also railed against courts for extending rights to special interest groups, apparently a reference to gay marriage and abortion.

(Editing by Alistair Bell)

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