Santorum’s Path To and From Iowa

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters after a strong showing in the Iowa caucus Jan. 3, 2011, in Johnston, Iowa.

Johnston, Iowa

For most of the 2012 campaign, Rick Santorum struggled to be heard. He groused about his share of time in the debates, was hard to find on television chat shows and couldn’t afford advertising. But his surprising near-tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses has given Santorum one of the loudest voices in politics—and a chance to block Mitt Romney’s path to the Republican nomination.

The question now is whether the former Pennsylvania Senator can survive beyond Iowa. Santorum, 52, staked everything on the Hawkeye contest. In days that began before dawn and ended after dark, he drove a borrowed Dodge pickup across all 99 Iowa counties and held nearly 400 events. “He was willing to drive a long way to go talk to one or two or three people,” says campaign manager Michael Biundo. He also pursued a proven Iowa strategy of targeting socially-conservative voters, who cheered his intense opposition to abortion and gay marriage. While he chafed as one rival after another surged past him in the polls, his allies preached patience. “I always told him, Iowa breaks late and it breaks fast,” says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative leader whose mid-December endorsement helped to propel Santorum–just as Newt Gingrich collapsed under a bombardment of attack ads. “It was a perfect storm.”

Maybe the former Pennsylvania Republican Senator was always undervalued. He does have a record as a respected conservative from a blue-state. The son of two Veterans Administration employees, he was elected to Congress at 32, became the youngest member of the Senate four years later, and rose swiftly into the Senate GOP leadership’s number-three slot. He made a name through hard-right crusades, including efforts to limit the teaching of evolution and his fierce battle for a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortion. He also championed welfare reform and took on quirky anti-government fights, like an effort to prevent the National Weather Service from releasing data offered by private companies.

At the same time, Santorum played the Washington game more effectively than his new fans may appreciate. During his two terms in the Senate, he backed government expansions that later helped brew the Tea Party uprising, including a new Medicare entitlement and No Child Left Behind. He bragged about winning earmarks for his state and was an unofficial Senate Republican liaison to the world of K Street lobbyists. And he took some moderate stances to maintain the support of Pennsylvania swing voters, including his endorsement of his colleague and Republican party defector Arlen Specter.

Santorum’s exit from Washington didn’t enhance his presidential timber. He was defeated in 2006 by an 18-point margin. He became a Daily Show punch line for warning about the specter of legalized “man on dog” sex, and a gay activist famously rigged his Google search results to profane effect.

Now he’s riding high again. But for how long? Santorum has precious little organization in the upcoming primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. His post-Iowa fundraising has soared, but he’s still a pauper compared to the Romney juggernaut. And while his Iowa surge came too late for Romney to subject him to the attack-ad carpet bombing that ruined Gingrich, that’s about to change. Romney is already describing Santorum as a Washington insider—and noting that he appreciated the Pennsylvanian’s endorsement of his 2008 presidential bid.

Unless the GOP’s fractious conservatives unite with force against Romney, Santorum may be destined for the same fate as the 2008 GOP caucus winner, Mike Huckabee, whose campaign fizzled beyond Iowa. For now, he’s vowing to fight. “This has been an incredible journey,” Santorum gushed at his post-caucus party in suburban Des Moines. “Game on.” He may have fallen eight votes short of a win, but it still felt like a victory.