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Santorum supporters watch Iowa caucus returns in disbelief

January 03, 2012|By James Oliphant
  • Supporters of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum compare Iowa caucus returns on their smartphones at the Republican presidential candidate's victory party in Johnston, Iowa.
Supporters of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum compare Iowa caucus… (Associated Press / Charlie…)

Reporting from Johnston, Iowa — Rick Santorum’s supporters eyed the TV screen, watched the returns roll in — and they still couldn’t quite believe it.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams, “ exclaimed Matt Schultz, Iowa’s secretary of state, who endorsed Santorum just a month ago.

With about half of Iowa’s precincts reporting, Santorum was in a dead heat with Mitt Romney, with Ron Paul slightly behind. A matter of weeks ago, the former Pennsylvania senator appeared dead in the water, on course to finish near the bottom of the field.

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“I would have been happy if he had finished in the top three,” said Julie Craven of West Des Moines, who said she appreciated Santorum’s “leadership” in opposing abortion rights.

But like a wild-card baseball team on a playoff run, Santorum caught fire at just the right time as social conservatives in the state and other undecided voters appeared to gravitate his way in large numbers at the expense of candidates such as Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann.

Indeed, sports metaphors were in vogue at Santorum’s victory party here. “This is a man who came from last place to a contender,” Schultz said. But he disputed the suggestion that Santorum only broke through to voters here at the very end.

“He did the groundwork. He did 382 town halls. And those weren’t done in the last two weeks,” he said.

Nearby, Mark Haller awaited Santorum’s arrival with satisfaction. He was wearing a “Santorum 2012” black T-shirt with the words “Beat Obama” on the back. His wife, Cassandra,  also a Santorum backer, had the shirts made.

Haller had been behind Santorum since the beginning, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t at times consider abandoning him and throwing his support behind some other GOP candidate who, at the time, was doing better in the polls.

“I was tempted constantly,” Haller said. “But you have to get back to your core values, and it kept coming back to Rick.”

Santorum himself had spoken at the caucus the Hellers attended, down the street from the hotel in Johnston, as did Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who spoke on behalf of his father, and Perry’s wife, Anita.

The Hellers were confident that Santorum would emerge to challenge Romney throughout the 2012 race. And both said Romney was not their candidate. “It’s that trust factor,” Cassandra Heller said. “Is he going to stay true to who he is?”

Outside the ballroom, Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the influential Christian advocacy group the Family Leader, who personally endorsed Santorum two weeks ago—a move that may have added to the ex-senator’s momentum—compared the candidate to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won here in 2008.

“Rick Santorum is a tailor-made caucus candidate,” he said. “He has the same thing Huckabee had, and that’s the likeability factor.”

Vander Plaats said that at the time of his endorsement, “We saw this bubbling under the carpet. We just tried to prick the carpet. I think we made the decision at the right time.”

He said the key to Santorum’s future success will be for “key national pro-family leaders” to rally around the candidate to avoid a repeat of 2008, when evangelicals split their votes in South Carolina between Huckabee and former Sen. Fred Thompson, handing the primary to John McCain.

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