How Rick Santorum’s Old-School Politicking Is Paying Off in Iowa

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Des Moines, Iowa

Rick Santorum was a surprise hiding in plain sight. All year, as rivals peaked and plummeted and the glut of televised debates offered a national megaphone, Santorum ran a textbook local race, doggedly criss-crossing Iowa’s remote precincts in a pickup truck, meeting small clusters of voters to enumerate his merits. He was the first to visit all 99 counties, racking up more than 350 campaign events this year. On Monday, as the candidates lazed in the post-Christmas lull, Santorum had Iowa to himself, donning traffic-cone orange garb to hunt pheasants with the influential-but-unaffiliated Rep. Steve King. It was the type of outreach that has been a hallmark of Santorum’s campaign. But amid the reality-show pageantry of this strange primary, none of it moved the needle in the polls. Nor was King moved to endorse Santorum.

Now Santorum’s strategy is finally paying off. With a late surge, Santorum has vaulted into the top tier in Iowa, making him a legitimate threat to contend for the Jan. 3 caucuses. In this week’s CNN/TIME/ORC poll, Santorum leaped to 16%, up 11 percentage points in three weeks and good for third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. A new We Ask America poll out Friday shows him in second at 17%, trailing only Romney.

There’s room for that support to grow before Tuesday. For months, the critical question hovering over the Iowa field has been whether the state’s large social-conservative voting bloc would coalesce behind a single candidate, as they did in 2008 with Mike Huckabee, or splinter into factions and leave Mitt Romney with a chance to a win a plurality without prioritizing a state accustomed to being lavished with attention. A staunch social conservative and defense hawk, Santorum’s policy positions are perhaps the best fit for values voters in a state where some 60% of caucus-goers in 2008 described themselves as evangelical Christians.

“I always told him, this thing is going to break late and it’s going to break fast,” says Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa social-conservative leader who endorsed Santorum last week. “I think the poll numbers are actually behind his surge. He’s got more support than people realize. Iowans reward people who show up. Santorum’s getting the benefit of all that work.”

Evangelicals haven’t fallen in line behind Santorum just yet. In TIME’s poll, just 22% of self-described born-again Christians preferred Santorum, who was one of six candidates registering double-digit support from that group. If social conservatives rally behind Santorum, he has an outside shot at snatching a shock victory — or at least kneecapping a slew of better-funded, buzzier contenders. In the surest sign that his surge is stoking fears among rival campaigns, he has suddenly become a target, with Rick Perry slamming his history of securing earmarks on the stump this week and in a new radio ad.

Comparisons to Huckabee’s rocket-fueled rise four years ago are inevitable, but the analogy doesn’t quite track. Dour and officious, Santorum lacks the humor and folksy charm that lured many Iowans to Huckabee, who surged earlier to become the clear conservative choice.  “Rick Santorum still has the ability to coalesce social conservatives around his campaign for a strong showing on caucus night, though I am not certain it would reach Mike Huckabee’s level,” says Tim Albrecht, an unaffiliated caucus veteran who served as Romney’s Iowa spokesman in 2007. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses with 34%. This year, it’s likely nobody will match that total; Romney, the current pace-setter, is polling around 25%. With no Democratic caucus this year, independents could boost turnout levels beyond the 119,000 who showed up in 2008, and they’re less likely to break Santorum’s way. “The surge is real,” says Albrecht, who has been predicting it for months, “but turnout is key.”

That surge is the product not just of Santorum’s doggedness or his ability to finally cobble together enough cash to begin running ads. For many Iowans, it’s also a validation of the state’s political traditions, which ask candidates to earn the support of caucus-goers by showing up again and again. More than anyone else Santorum has done that. Were a candidate like Romney to win the state after visiting sparingly, snubbing events held by local leaders and making a show of tempering expectations, it would undermine the credibility of the demands the state’s voters make of a candidate.

It was a combination of Santorum’s faith and his commitment to the caucuses that swayed some of the state’s leading social-conservative kingmakers to back Santorum over the last month. On Dec. 1, Santorum received a critical endorsement from Cary Gordon, an influential Sioux City pastor. Prior to Gordon’s endorsement, the two spoke nearly every day, Gordon says. When Gordon endorsed, he blasted out a text message explaining his decision to the smartphones of some 840,000 registered voters. “Retail politics — sitting down across from ordinary, average citizens — is fundamental to our system of government,” Gordon says. “Senator Santorum was humble. He was willing to give context to decisions he made in the past.”

Of course, Iowa is the only place where Santorum has put in that work or assembled any semblance of a ground game. A triumph here wouldn’t be enough to propel Santorum into national contention. Which is why in the final four days of the race, Santorum’s biggest challenge is to dispel the perception that he’s not electable. In TIME’s poll this week, just 4% of Iowans said Santorum was the candidate with the best shot to dislodge President Obama.

That skepticism extends even to Santorum’s fans. At a Gingrich campaign rally at a Mason City mall earlier this week, Cynthia Kimball, a retiree from Clear Lake, Iowa, told TIME that after an exhaustive search for a standard-bearer — “it changed almost daily,” she says — Santorum emerged as her favorite candidate. But she and her husband plan to support Mitt Romney, believing the former Massachusetts governor is the GOP’s most viable candidate. “He can’t win,” she says of Santorum.

Except many Iowans are no longer convinced that’s true. “If I had to predict today, I’d say Romney’s probably going to win, and there’s a race between Santorum and Paul for second,” Vander Plaats says. “But who knows. He could even pull this thing out.”