COTTLEVILLE, Mo. (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denounced the "gutter politics" of his opponents Monday as he turned his campaign away from a potentially futile effort in Florida in hopes of regaining momentum in the Midwest.
After spending what he described as a stressful weekend with his sick 3-year-old daughter, Santorum resumed his campaign at a suburban St. Louis community college - assuring people that his daughter was improving and forecasting a political revival in swing states such as Missouri. He was to appear later Monday at a campaign event in Minnesota, which also is holding its caucuses next week.
The former senator from Pennsylvania carefully avoided naming Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich - he trails them in polls heading into Tuesday's primary in Florida - but nonetheless directed a scolding toward them for what he said is devolving into a negative campaign.
"I'm sick and tired of candidates who think they have to do anything that's necessary - anything - to win an election," Santorum told more than 300 people packed into an auditorium at St. Charles Community College. "We deserve better than the gutter politics that we've been seeing in this race."
Santorum is the first Republican candidate to appear in Missouri in advance of its Feb. 7 primary, which will essentially be a statewide public opinion poll. The Republican Party plans to award its presidential delegates in Missouri through a series of caucuses that begin in mid-March. Gingrich didn't get on Missouri's primary ballot while others who have since dropped out of the race will be listed alongside Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul.
Santorum said he still considers Missouri's primary to be important. Because of Gingrich's absence, it could allow Santorum to test his political strength more directly against that of Romney, who has been building a network of prominent Republican endorsements in Missouri.
"I think doing well in the primary well help us in the caucus," Santorum told The Associated Press after his Missouri campaign event.
Democratic President Barack Obama narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 to Republican Sen. John McCain.
Santorum campaigned Monday in one of Missouri's fastest-growing and staunchly Republican counties. Because the crowd exceeded the capacity of the auditorium, he later took a bullhorn to speak to an additional 150 people outside, then lingered to hold babies, pose for photos and sign autographs.
During his campaign speech, Santorum touted his plan to eliminate the corporate income tax for manufacturers and waive taxes on money earned by companies overseas if it is brought back to the US and invested in new equipment at plants. He pledged to repeal all regulations enacted during Obama's presidency, to enforce trade laws against China and to support fundamental change to the education system, though he offered few specifics beyond combining numerous federal education programs under large block grants to states and local schools.
Among those at his Missouri campaign event was Marty Leitner, a longtime Republican who said she appreciated the family emphasis of both Santorum and Romney but had become turned off by reports about Romney's wealth.
"I think Santorum's a little more like most normal people, and Romney's a little out of touch with most average Americans," said Leitner, 43, of St. Charles.
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