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Santorum a late bloomer in Iowa

Of all the Republican candidates, he has spent the most time traveling the state, and now his efforts seem to be paying off. The media is showering attention and more voters seem to be swinging his way.

December 29, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau
  • Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to the media during a campaign stop at Coralville City Hall in Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to the media during… (Charlie Neibergall, AP )

Reporting from Muscatine, Iowa — For Rick Santorum, it was the paparazzi moment that looked like it would never come. Cameras and correspondents awaited him Thursday at an event in eastern Iowa in numbers that had rarely, if ever, been seen by his campaign. Even the presidential candidate seemed a bit taken aback.

"Enjoying the circus?" one reporter asked. "This is the first day," Santorum replied.

Nobody has worked harder or spent more time traveling Iowa's rural highways and visiting its hamlets than Santorum — and until this week, no one had less to show for it. But with polls indicating that Santorum is rising in the minds of voters likely to attend next week's caucuses, there's a growing sense that if any candidate is going to leverage Iowa's wide swath of evangelicals, it will be the former Pennsylvania senator.

Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was able to unify social conservatives and win the state out from under Mitt Romney, but this time, support from those voters has splintered among Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. But with Bachmann fading fast, Perry struggling to recover from his debate missteps and Gingrich faltering under the weight of negative attacks, Santorum appears to have a chance to finish among the top tier and move on to other states.

He's watched as other contenders have basked in the media glow when he's largely been an afterthought. He's seen himself consigned to the far end of debate stages and left pleading for airtime. But all along, he has insisted that his incessant travels in Iowa, his hundreds of events, would pay off — and now he might be right.

"We've got a game plan in place," Santorum said Thursday. "We've stuck to it despite people saying it's not working."

Santorum's late surge has been fueled by endorsements from key evangelical leaders — including Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Family Leader advocacy group — and a growing sense here that social conservatives must rally around one candidate to compete with Romney and Ron Paul, the favorites in Tuesday's caucuses.

"Santorum has been in some cases unfairly ignored while he's truly campaigned the hardest, in the sense of a retail Iowa campaign," said Cary Gordon, a pastor from Sioux City. "He's been willing to spend the time that's necessary to engender the trust of the voters."

Karen Fesler, a Santorum volunteer from Coralville, said the campaign had seen a surge of support from social conservatives in recent weeks.

"We've picked up a lot of the Huckabee people," Fesler said, adding that Iowa home-schoolers and antiabortion activists were also coalescing behind the candidate.

She was confident that Santorum's work crisscrossing the state would benefit him. "In a lot of those rural counties, he's the only candidate they've ever seen," she said.

Later Thursday, an overflow crowd greeted Santorum at a restaurant along the Mississippi River in Muscatine — and he seemed delighted and newly energized. Aides said crowds had been steadily growing larger over the last week.

"We'll turn this country around, and Iowa will be the spark that did it," he told the gathering.

As the fortunes of his conservative rivals have sagged, Santorum has also been boosted by his aggressive stance on Iran. He has long warned of the threat Iran would pose to Israel if it were to build a nuclear weapon, and he hasn't been afraid to attack Paul on the issue of national security.

Jeanna Holmes, 48, of Iowa City said in Coralville that although she was still undecided on a candidate, she was done with Paul because of his foreign policy views. "That's where we part ways," she said.

Santorum blasted the Texas congressman again in Muscatine. He said that Paul "would take every ship we have and bring it into port," and suggested that Paul would be ineffective as president: "He's passed one bill in 20 years."

Indications that Santorum's candidacy was blossoming at precisely the right time were everywhere. He was interviewed on Fox News and CNN and booked for this weekend's "Meet the Press." And Perry, also campaigning in Iowa, ripped him for requesting earmarks as a senator. Perry's campaign also cut a radio ad blasting him.

After serving in the House, Santorum, 53, was elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution. He lasted two terms before being routed by Democrat Bob Casey in 2006.

"Losing is not the worst thing that can happen to you," he said. "Not standing up for what you believe in is the worst thing. If I am going to lose, I'm going to lose by my own terms. I'm not going to move to the middle and lose by 5. I'd rather lose by 15 — and I did."

He resisted the suggestion that he was merely a candidate for evangelicals and other social conservatives, highlighting his national security credentials and emphasizing his role in reforming welfare while a senator.

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