PASCO — Presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he visited Pasco on Thursday because that is where he knew he would reach Republican voters.
"There are a lot of votes here in the Tri-Cities we think we can get for the caucuses," he told the Herald. "Just this crowd and every one of them voting can swing this."
Benton County Republican Chairman Patrick McBurney estimated about 700 people turned out to see the former Pennsylvania senator talk about his campaign.
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Santorum delivered a message that although he is an underdog in the race for the GOP nomination, he still believes he can win.
"Everybody is focused on Super Tuesday," he said. "We can put this race on a whole other plane if Washington speaks conservatively on Saturday."
Washington's Republican caucuses Saturday represent the last contest before Super Tuesday, when delegates in 10 states will be up for grabs.
Santorum is seeking the Republican nomination for president in a campaign field that also includes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Romney was the early frontrunner for the GOP nomination after strong showings in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada, but Santorum seized the momentum with wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
Romney regained the lead Tuesday with wins in Arizona and Michigan, his birth state.
But although Romney won the popular vote in Michigan, he and Santorum ended up evenly splitting the state's delegates, leading Santorum to describe the night as a victory for his campaign, The Associated Press reported.
After the Michigan Republican Party took a delegate away from Santorum and gave it to Romney, Santorum on Thursday cried foul and claimed the party changed the rules to favor Romney.
He described Michigan Republicans as a "good old boy network" who were embarrassed when they failed to deliver a majority of delegates to native son Romney.
"You might expect that from a banana republic, not the United States of America," he said. "You wouldn't expect that from a conservative."
He said true conservatives play by the rules.
"Since Gov. Romney is new to being a conservative, maybe he didn't understand that," Santorum said. "This is what we're up against -- the old boy network. I've been up against them before."
Santorum touted his record of defeating Democrats in Pennsylvania when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and later the Senate, and said that makes him the best candidate to defeat President Obama in November.
"It was a tough state in Pennsylvania -- not as tough as Washington," he said. "I beat Democrat after Democrat."
But he omitted that he lost his Senate seat in the 2006 general election to Democrat Bob Casey by 19 percentage points.
Santorum described himself as the true conservative in the race, and said it is only when the GOP nominates a conservative that it wins.
He cited failed presidential bids by Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 as examples of Republicans who lost when they ran as moderates.
"You folks in Washington state have the opportunity to say you want a conservative nominee for the Republican party this fall," he said. "We want a conservative nominee because that's our best chance of winning."
If elected, Santorum said he would support construction of the Keystone oil pipeline and the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas.
On social issues, he repeated oft-stated positions against abortion and same-sex marriage.
He blasted social welfare programs and the health care reform law passed by Congress and signed by Obama in 2010.
"It is going to do something fundamentally different to this country. We are at an all-time high right now -- this year -- of people relying on government benefits. With Obamacare, if that goes into law, if that is implemented, every single American will be dependent on the federal government for something that is an essential element of your life -- your health," he said.
Santorum compared Obama to a monarch and called for a return to the "God-given rights" in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are a great country because we believe in God-given rights," he said. "We believed in the ability to build a great society from the bottom up. And guess what happened? We transformed the world."
Paul and Gingrich also campaigned in the area in the past two weeks. Only Romney failed to make a personal appearance in the Tri-Cities. He sent son Josh Romney on Feb. 21 to meet with about 130 supporters and train them for the caucuses.
Paul's appearance drew about 1,500 people to the Red Lion Hanford House in Richland, while Gingrich drew about 600 supporters.