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Santorum, After Iowa
His campaign plans to compete in New Hampshire and beyond.


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Robert Costa

Des Moines, Iowa – One hot August night in Ames, Rick Santorum stood on the mat-covered basketball court at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum. As pop-country songs played softly over the arena’s loudspeakers, he huddled with his wife, Karen. Few people noticed him, and his handlers, if he had any, were elsewhere. Reporters breezed past the couple, hustling to chat with big-name strategists working for Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

A couple steps away, under a cavern of Klieg lights, Sean Hannity of Fox News bantered with Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, who was widely expected to sweep the upcoming straw poll. Santorum, surveying the scene, scowled. As he waited for Bachmann to finish the interview, he tapped his foot, like a backup player itching to get into the game. Once again he had participated in a Republican primary debate, and once again he was a bench-warmer.

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Minutes after the televised spar, here he was, in a post-debate “spin room” stuffed with political junkies, and he was ignored — an also-ran, a B-list pol waiting to appear on cable. The proud, boyish-looking former Pennsylvania senator was miffed. “This is unbelievable,” he told Karen, shaking his head. “Two questions in the beginning, and I had to wave my hand to get them.”

Five months later, on a bitterly cold January morning in central Iowa, Santorum’s summer doldrums have largely evaporated. All week, as he has greeted burly voters, many of them decked in Carhartt jackets, he has been swarmed by hundreds of media types — print reporters, network producers, camera-toting Swiss bloggers — out in force to cover every move of the man who, quite suddenly, has shaken up the GOP presidential scramble.

But Santorum’s sustained buzz in Iowa’s small diners and Pizza Ranch restaurants is not due in any way to his celebrity or his charm. His usual outfit — single-color, slightly pilled sweater-vests over a pressed white shirt — is the look of the ill-at-ease soccer dad, not the confident frontrunner. His remarks are always delivered rapid-fire, are frequently testy, and are too often focused on long-forgotten legislative yawners. Regardless, Iowans have flocked to him at the eleventh hour, partly because they’ve soured on Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry, and partly because he is the last alternative to Mitt Romney left, the nice-enough guy who has visited all 99 counties.

That’s just fine with Santorum, who tells me that he is confident that Republicans will nominate him, a “reliable conservative,” rather than “settle” on Romney. But as Iowans prepare to caucus, Romney’s well-organized and lavishly funded campaign looms over the Pennsylvanian’s upstart effort — the Death Star to Santorum’s X-wing fighter. Whatever the outcome tonight, the former Massachusetts governor will be a formidable competitor in the months ahead, as will Texas congressman Ron Paul, who has the money and ground game to stay in the hunt. And the rest of the field, should they choose to carry on, will give Santorum headaches, knocking him as they fade.

Of course, such a scenario depends on Santorum finishing in Iowa’s top tier, near or above Paul and Romney. The latest polls hint at this happening, but in this tumultuous primary season, most every reporter is wary of trusting any last-minute temperature-taking of the conservatives among the cornfields. Still, Santorum looks poised for a good night, and should he pull it off the real question becomes: What’s next?

To get some answers, I recently spoke with John Brabender, Santorum’s own Karl Rove — the senior strategist who has been with him since his first House race in 1990, when he toppled Democrat Doug Walgren, a seven-term incumbent from the Pittsburgh suburbs. Brabender tells me to keep an eye on seven factors as the Iowa HQ closes and the plane for Manchester is fueled.



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