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Santorum, the Dark Horse
He may not win, but he could surprise.


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Robert Costa

Rick Santorum, more than most presidential candidates, enjoys stumping in small Iowa towns. He’ll gladly spend hours at VFW halls and in church basements, even if only a handful of people are present. These trail gatherings remind him of his childhood in western Pennsylvania, where he grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood. His parents, traditional Roman Catholics, socialized in similar settings and, as employees of the Veterans Administration, encouraged their seven children to celebrate their faith and country. During the Vietnam era, Santorum’s father, an Italian immigrant, would often bring his son to work, introducing him to wounded soldiers.

On the campaign trail over the past month, Santorum has frequently spoken about his youth. Yes, he served in the United States Senate from 1995 until he lost his 2006 reelection bid. But these days, in the eleventh hour of the primary, it’s his roots and principles, his scrappy persona, that are stirring renewed interest in his candidacy. In the latest Public Policy Polling survey, his Iowa support has risen, hitting 10 percent, a mere four points behind Newt Gingrich with less than two weeks until the caucuses. Those numbers are close to those of other second-tier contenders, but Santorum has something they do not: upward momentum.

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In a phone interview from Iowa — where he, as ever, is hosting coffee klatches and stopping by diner tables — Santorum tells National Review Online that his persistence appears to be paying off, with bigger crowds attending his events and more money pouring into his coffers. But he throws a little cold water on the notion that he will suddenly stomp to an upset victory in the Hawkeye State, propelled solely by grassroots enthusiasm. Sweat equity can do a lot in Iowa, where Santorum has visited all 99 counties — but in this cycle, with the polls fluctuating each week, nothing is guaranteed. His strategy, his wish, is that “slow and steady wins the race.”

“We just believe that the work we’ve done, our respect for the process in Iowa, holding 349 town-hall meetings, will matter as people start making their decisions,” Santorum says. “People are looking at who they trust, deciding which candidate has the best chance of reflecting our values and getting things done in Washington. Slowly but surely, people are making that calculus, and we feel they are moving in our direction. My hope was that we were going to have a poll that showed us in double digits before Christmas.” PPP’s poll is a step in that direction but far from enough, he says. He needs to build upon that bounce with precinct captains.

Santorum, who served in the House of Representatives before his ascension to the upper chamber, has years of experience in hand-to-hand political combat. He may have lost to Democrat Bob Casey in 2006 by 18 points, but before that, he won close races in a swing state while running as an unabashed social conservative. “I don’t think [my campaign] is going to explode” in terms of popularity, he says, “but we will keep picking up and picking up, and in a couple weeks, we’ll be exactly where we want to be.” His confidence is buoyed by the relationships he has established in Iowa, a state he has visited repeatedly for the past two years.

Back in the summer of 2010, when he first began to hint at a presidential run, Santorum told NRO that he expected an uphill climb. “In my experience, I’ve found that it’s better to be under the radar,” he said. He found that in Iowa, especially, conservatives warmly embraced visitors who lacked sizzle. He had lost a Senate race, and his political stock had diminished, but he did not hear anyone else vocally defending the country’s “Judeo-Christian ethic and the importance of family and faith to freedom.” He saw an opening. “When I go out there and give these talks, no matter where I am, I talk about the moral issues,” he said.



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