Surging in Iowa, Santorum Revels in Newfound Attention

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Scott Olson / Getty Images

Rick Santorum eaves a town hall meeting on December 30, 2011, in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Ames, Iowa

Winning over Iowa’s fickle voters is hard enough without spoiling their fun. On Friday afternoon, Rick Santorum pulled into a Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar here to perform the ritualistic, shared-identity pander of rooting for a local sports team with which the candidate has only a passing familiarity. The problem was that Santorum’s visit to Ames, home to Iowa State University, coincided with the biggest football game of the year. By the time the Cyclones and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights kicked off at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the bar was mobbed with a jumble of reporters, who hovered around the six round tables reserved for the surging candidate, clogging the aisles and blocking patrons’ views of the myriad flat-screen TVs with errant boom mikes. “Watch out here, we’ve got a game going on!” bellowed one understandably aggrieved fan.

Matters deteriorated further when the candidate arrived early in the second quarter, trailed by a scrum of cameras, and proceeded to hold a media availability under the klieg-lights before meeting voters, not looking up when cheers reverberated through the bar after Iowa State broke a long run or for the collective groan when it was called back. Santorum, whose lonely barnstorm of the state often yielded tiny crowds and derision from the media, reveled in the flood of attention that has accompanied his rise in the polls. “This is what I counted on and hoped for,” Santorum says. “And here it is.”

And yet, the throng of reporters dwarfed the number of actual supporters by perhaps 10 to 1. Santorum’s aides had requested 30 seats for supporters, but by the time Santorum wended his way through the cameras to sit with them only about a half-dozen had assembled; the rest of the crowd stayed transfixed by the game. He plopped down and shook hands Kittie Peacock, a store manager and Santorum precinct captain from Des Moines, and Peacock’s son. The small talk had barely begun — “I’m in Ames, I’m rooting for the Cyclones, absolutely!” — when the media intruded again. Santorum feigned chagrin for the commotion. “I’m a little bit surprised at the scale of turnout,” he said. “I apologize, I apologize to everybody here!” But he didn’t seem particularly sorry.

Nor did Kittie Peacock, who seemed bemused but excited by the camers. “There was never this much press before,” she says, “but caucuses work this way. The one who has laid the groundwork surges at the end.” Dean Fisher, a farmer and Santorum supporter who is running for the Iowa House in 2012, recalled seeing the candidate for the first time three months ago in nearby Toledo, at an event where less than 10 people showed up. “Slow and steady, I guess,” says Fisher, who said he still did not expect Santorum to capture the caucuses.

For Santorum, the surge is a validation of his dogged, textbook strategy of vacuuming up votes from rural hamlets and enclaves — a tactic that, in a year dominated by debates, sometimes seemed akin to trying to win the Super Bowl running the single-wing offense. “We’ve been out here for a long time working very hard,” says Santorum, who said he would continue on to New Hampshire and South Carolina and was hoping for a “top three or four” finish.

That the former Pennsylvania Senator has a shot to land even higher would be a fitting capstone to a tumultuous race. “A week ago he was in last,” shrugged Matthew Beynon, the campaign’s deputy communications director.

Santorum’s climb from low single-digits to the mid-teens has, of course, lured detractors. Outside the event, James Schafer, a 23-year-old recent Iowa State graduate, was tucking lime-green flyers declaring Santorum a “pro-life fraud” on the windshields of parked cars. “I’m probably pissing off a lot of people, but I think it’s important,” he says. Asked if he planned to disseminate the flyers outside Santorum’s events all weekend, he shrugged. “I’m pretty bored. I got nothing else going on. Might as well.”

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