MYRTLE BEACH -- On the same day former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out and threw his support to Mitt Romney, two of his remaining rivals here urged South Carolina tea party members to unite behind them.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke to a few hundred people gathered at a statewide tea party convention Monday, just hours before the presidential debate.

Neither mentioned the former Massachusetts governor by name, but both sounded similar messages and urged them not to settle for anything less than the best conservative on the ballot.

"Don't settle for less than what America needs," Santorum said, calling himself a "conviction conservative, someone who is not just conservative on one issue and not just for one time."

Santorum said he is not without flaws and is sure his opponents will point them out. He did mention earmarks, which he sought as a senator, but noted they are less than 1 percent of the budget and did ensure the development of key military weapons, such as the MRAP armored vehicles, the V-22 Osprey and predator drones.

Gingrich said South Carolina Republicans have the chance to change history when they hold their primary vote Saturday, "but to do that, we have to unify the tea parties and unify the conservatives in a very important way."

He said if Republicans nominate a moderate, then there won't be enough of a contrast between that candidate and President Barack Obama. "What's at stake this year is our country," he said. "We have the most radical president in the history of the United States and if he gets re-elected with this record, he will be even more radical in his second term."

Texas Rep. Ron Paul also was set to speak but arrived and left when the event ran late into his time slot. Texas Gov. Rick Perry also did not appear.

Romney did not appear, but his South Carolina chair, state Treasurer and tea party favorite Curtis Loftis, told the group that conservatives must come together after the GOP primary.

Loftis didn't mention his role in Romney's campaign -- or even Romney's name -- but he said a strong conservative turnout is crucial to defeating Obama this fall.

"Every one of us has got to go the polls. We've got to stop this tide of socialism. We've got to stop this crony capitalism," he said. "This will never be the country that we want, but without you we won't have a chance."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.