Late-Breaking and Game Changing: Rick Santorum Is Red Hot in Iowa

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Lars Tunbjork for TIME

Rick Santorum campaigns at Buffalo Wild Wings in Ames, Iowa on December 30, 2011.

Sioux City, Iowa

It took about 375 events, but Rick Santorum is finally Iowa’s man of the moment. A candidate who once seemed permanently relegated to campaign footnotes is commanding crowds befitting a front runner and relishing every second. On Sunday afternoon in Sioux City, a conservative town nestled near the Nebraska border, roughly 200 Iowans jostled with a phalanx of press who had made the 200-mile trek from Des Moines. The standing-room-only crowd crammed into a coffee shop and spilled out the door, allowing a bitter wind to knife in off the prairie. Santorum held the audience rapt, unspooling a stump speech that touted his conservative credentials, denounced President Obama and appealed to voters’ vanity. “You can send a loud and clear message to the world,” he told the crowd, “about what the heartland of America wants.”

If Santorum is the man Iowans want, it would be the sharpest turn yet in a race of hairpin curves. Despite his long, lonely tour through the Hawkeye State, the former Pennsylvania Senator was mired in last place as late as December. Now he is unquestionably the race’s hottest candidate. In a Des Moines Register poll released on New Year’s Eve and noted for its historical accuracy, Santorum notched 15% of the vote. But in the survey’s last two days, he collected the second most votes, and on its final day, he ran just a point behind front runner Mitt Romney — well within the poll’s margin of error.

Santorum’s surge has supporters crowing about his potential to pull an upset on Tuesday. “We’re about to blow the doors off this thing,” says Cary Gordon, the pastor of a Sioux City church, who was one of the first in a series of influential conservatives to endorse the former Pennsylvania Senator. “You can feel it.”

Santorum is certainly feeling it. “I’m having a good time right now,” he told reporters Saturday in Indianola, where he held a meet and greet in a public-library reading room whose yellow cinder-block walls were adorned with children’s drawings. His stump speech is fiery and effective — a mix of humor, policy and platitudes about American exceptionalism that elicits enthusiastic nods and Amens from audience members. Santorum effectively milks the time he’s spent in the state. He likes to tell Iowans that they have made him a better candidate, and, like President Obama did as a candidate, he inverts the formula when asking for votes, telling caucusgoers it’s about them more than him.

“I’m asking you to stand up for your honor. Fight for what you believe in,” he said in Sioux City. “Don’t settle for a Pyrrhic victory,” goes another of his formulations. On Saturday afternoon in Pella, as perhaps 100 people ringed around him outside the picturesque town’s public library in the wan winter light, he repeated a line several times for emphasis: “Lead and be bold. Lead. And be bold.”

The irony of Santorum’s rise is that while he may well be the race’s most conservative candidate and is well versed in policy, his support stems not from his political positions but rather his commitment to courting Iowans. Santorum’s final TV ad heralds him as the “conservative who gives us the best chance to take back America,” but just 7% of respondents in the Register poll called him the most electable. At 6%, he was the candidate cited least as the best champion for the signal issue of reducing the debt, and while he makes slashing the size of the federal bureaucracy a focus of his speeches, the Register poll rated him the least dedicated to limiting the influence of government.

Where Santorum excels is in the sense of kinship he’s forged with Iowans. “Meeting people in their living rooms, going to their towns — it matters. His rise in the polls is a tribute to his work,” says Matt Schultz, Iowa’s Secretary of State, who gave Santorum a big boost when he publicly backed him three weeks ago. Schultz supported Santorum partly to reward his fulfillment of the exacting demands the state foists on a candidate. It has paid off. In the Register poll, Santorum paced the field in the critical but intangible categories that measure connection, rating the “least eg0-driven” and “the best at relating to ordinary Iowans,” in which he tied with Michele Bachmann.

When asked about his opponents, Santorum likes to divide the field into three categories: the “Establishment” bracket, which includes Romney and Newt Gingrich; the libertarian bracket, which Ron Paul has to himself; and the “conservative” group, where he’s vying for votes with Bachmann and Rick Perry. As much as anything else, Santorum’s rise is a function of others’ implosions — to some extent Gingrich, but also the nosedives of Bachmann and Perry, whose campaigns have been racked by dysfunction and infighting, not to mention the candidates’ shortcomings.

Gerald Pallesen, a retiree from Marcus, Iowa, who was among the crowd catching a glimpse of Santorum in Sioux City on Sunday, is perhaps typical of the growing bloc of voters who have finally latched on to Santorum in the race’s closing week. A soft-spoken man with a handlebar mustache and a leather bomber jacket with “NRA benefactor” etched onto the breast, Pallesen is like a lot of voters who live in this windswept, archconservative pocket of the state. Concerned with guns, God and morality, in his retirement he’s built a side business traveling four states to play taps at military funerals. He harbors deep concerns about Romney, whom he considers a “mirror image” of Obama, and had been a Bachmann supporter since the straw poll. But for a while, Pallesen had mounting concerns about the “unfortunate incidents” that befell Bachmann’s campaign. This week, when Kent Sorenson, one of her top in-state advisers, defected to Ron Paul, it was the last straw. “I still think she would have made an excellent President,” he says. “I just didn’t feel at that point that she was a viable candidate anymore.”

The adage about Iowa is that its voters break late and break hard. By being the last to surge, Santorum has spared himself the scrutiny that scarred candidates like Gingrich, whose campaign derailed after a flurry of attack ads. But things are starting to change. In recent days, Santorum has found himself targeted by Perry for earmarking and, on Sunday, cast by Romney as a Washington insider. “Like Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum has spent his career in government and in Washington,” Romney said.

The attack was mild — Romney’s campaign considers Santorum a weaker rival and stands to benefit in later states from his continued presence, which would keep the conservative vote fractured — but Santorum welcomes the jabs. “It means we’re someone to fear,” he said on Saturday in Indianola. In Sioux City, he parried a question about his support for former Republican Senator Arlen Specter, explaining that his intention was to preserve a Senate majority that would help shepherd through Supreme Court nominees like Justice Samuel Alito. If he emerges from Iowa as one of the victors, expect Santorum’s rivals to dredge up more such instances to sow seeds of doubt about the conservative purity he trumpets.

For now, Santorum’s backers are buoyant, believing he is poised for a stronger showing than he could have expected even a week ago. “People will underestimate him, just like they’ve done all year,” says Schultz, Iowa’s Secretary of State. “The momentum is with the Senator. He’s been everybody’s second choice. People are finally making up their minds.”

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