DES MOINES — A surging Rick Santorum said Sunday he feels "very good" about his chances for a top tier finish in Iowa's Republican caucuses, even as he found himself facing criticisms and questions attached to his last minute rise from obscurity.
The former senator from Pennsylvania rejected suggestions that he must win the Iowa caucuses Tuesday to meet expectations. His last minute surge has pushed him to third place and one poll suggested he was closing in on second place behind Mitt Romney.
But he clearly felt upbeat Sunday, daring for the first time to look beyond Iowa, saying he'll wage a tough campaign in New Hampshire against Romney while some others may cede the state to New Englander Romney and skip to South Carolina.
"We feel very good about the way things are going," Santorum said on NBC's Meet the Press program.
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"We're going to have a big jump in Iowa, I don't know what it's going to be," he said. "Unlike Rick Perry, unlike Michele Bachmann, unlike others, we're going to New Hampshire. We're going to compete in every region of this country. I come from the Northeast. I've been able to get the blue collar voters, the Reagan Democrats, to vote for me in the past and we're going to do the same thing and that's why we're going to win this election."
After languishing far back in the pack for months, Santorum's shot up in recent days as rivals such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have lost support.
A Des Moines Register Poll Saturday showed former Massachusetts Gov. Romney with the support of 24 percent of likely caucus attendees, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 22 percent, Santorum with 15 percent, Gingrich with 12 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 11 percent, Bachmann with 7 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 2 percent.
In the last two days of the four-day poll, Santorum moved into second place, while Paul dropped to third.
Rivals took aim, slamming Santorum for supporting pork barrel "earmark" spending while in the Congress.
"He's got a spending problem. He's got an earmark problem," Perry said on the Fox News Sunday program, referring to the system of using federal money for local projects.
Bachmann on Fox said that Santorum voted for the "bridge to nowhere," a now-infamous plan to build a bridge to a largely uninhabited island in Alaska.
She also noted that he lost his last election, ousted from his Senate seat in a landslide loss in 2006.
Santorum defended his support for earmarked appropriations, particularly for his own constituents.
"I don't regret going out at the time and making sure that the people of Pennsylvania...got resources," he said.
But he added, "What happened was abuse, there was an abuse of the process and I agreed with that, that it was leading to more spending, leading to bigger spending bills, and it had to end."
He also faced questions about his 2008 support for Romney, saying he backed him then as a better choice than Sen. John McCain. "The best chance to stop John McCain was...my concern," he said.
Just two days before voting, most of the candidates did their talking on television.
Paul, taking a weekend break at home in Texas Sunday, did not plan to return to Iowa until Monday. On Fox, he brushed aside the suggestion from polls that some of his support was eroding.
"The die is cast," he said. "Our numbers won't go down."
Perry also spent the day behind closed doors after attending church and appearing on Fox. "My momentum's heading in the right direction," he said. He insisted he is the one credible alternative to Romney, the only one who can wage a state-to-state battle after Iowa.
While Perry plans to go straight from Iowa to South Carolina, which votes third, aides insisted Sunday that he is not entirely skipping the more liberal New Hampshire. They noted that he'll participate in two debates there, and will do some campaigning while there.
Bachmann strived to convince voters she still has a chance, arguing that her recent bus tour drew huge crowds that are not reflected in polls. "We saw literally...thousands of people making conversions on the spot," she said.
Romney went to church, and then held two campaign events in his light day seeking support in Iowa.
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