The Saga of Rick Santorum’s Second Surge

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Andrew Cutraro for TIME

Only six weeks ago, Rick Santorum was basking in the aftermath of his Iowa triumph. Pundits and voters alike wondered how they missed a force hiding in plain sight. Santorum talked about taking his one-state campaign national, and there was reason to suspect he had a shot at riding the surge that began in the Hawkeye State cornfields. Of all the candidates jockeying to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, Santorum — a devout Catholic with a spotless personal life, a blue collar biography, a keen intellect and deeply conservative social views — has perhaps the best set of credentials for a Republican primary. “He didn’t go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton,” says Foster Friess, the cowboy-hatted Wyoming millionaire whose seed money sustained Santorum’s super PAC through lean times. “People like him, believe he’s honest and share his core values about what makes America great.”

Friess spent time with Santorum in Iowa, where he was winning. But after that, the candidate faded in a blink. Santorum slumped to fifth place in New Hampshire, beset by hecklers, hostile crowds and a muddled message that too often veered from the economic populism that endears him to working-class Republicans. He was a nonfactor in South Carolina, and largely skipped subsequent contests in Florida and Nevada to regroup and focus on small, low-turnout contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. None of those contests carried any bound delegates. But momentum is a force independent of convention math. Santorum’s three-state sweep has cranked his bandwagon back into gear, propelling him into the lead in national polls and re-establishing him as the primary foil for Mitt Romney.

Given the vagaries of Republican voters, we should know better than to make too much of these numbers, which are liable to erode once Romney’s forces begin reminding Republican voters of Santorum’s conservative apostasies during his tenure on Capitol Hill. But for now, as I write in the new issue of TIME, Santorum looks to be the last man standing between the Republican base and a Romney coronation.

To sustain the momentum, Santorum’s campaign is scrambling to devise a strategy that allows it to compete with Romney’s deep-pocketed, well-oiled machine as 10 states head to the polls on Super Tuesday, March 6. “We learned a lot from trying to ramp up quickly after Iowa,” says Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager. “We didn’t have the bandwidth at that point to run the kind of campaign we needed.” The campaign is weighing how to spread its cash across the multiple states and is likely to target conservative states — including Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho and Tennessee — where it hopes to avoid costly air wars.

The plum prize, of course, is the Michigan primary on Feb. 28. A victory in Romney’s home state would be an embarrassment for Romney and would dispel what aura of inevitability the front runner has left. Santorum’s team, which is leery of the polls showing their man up by around 10 points, is cautious about investing heavily in a state where he could get trounced. But even the specter of an upset has spooked the former Massachusetts governor. “Romney must be having nightmares,” says Bill Ballenger, a Michigan political analyst. “I’ve never seen other candidates do well with so little as Romney’s opponents. And it’s simply because they’re not Romney. If he loses Michigan, it may be the final impetus that would get the Karl Roves and the super PACs together to say, ‘Enough of this.’ It would be devastating.”

Read more about Santorum in the new issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers and on newsstands Friday.