Iowa is wide open — and there’s no obvious pick for the underdog Mike Huckabee slot this cycle.
In the most recent Iowa polls, done in August, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were polling behind the rest of the field (the other straggler, Jon Huntsman, is not campaigning in Iowa).
According to Iowa politicos, of those three, Rick Santorum has the best chance of springing out from the pack and becoming a top-tier contender in the Hawkeye state.
“Only one is really cultivating the ground out here in Iowa, and that would be Santorum,” says Craig Robinson, editor of TheIowaRepublican.com and a former political director of the Iowa GOP. “He kind of continues to check in. He’s putting in the hard work, whereas Newt was in last night . . . at Principal Financial Group, unveiling his Contract with America, [but] he’s not really out there, pounding the pavement in rural Iowa in these counties. Herman Cain, he hasn’t even been here since the straw poll.”
“I think Santorum’s campaign has a chance to be the Mike Huckabee of 2008,” says Bob Vander Plaats, who chaired Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign and is now president of the Family Leader, a conservative activist group. Vander Plaats says Iowans have been impressed with Santorum’s performance in the debates — but have also liked him on the trail.
“He’s been consistent with his message,” he adds, “and when [the people] go to hear him in Iowa, I get e-mails back or text messages back about how much they’re impressed with him. He’s been out here a lot. And Iowans reward people who show up.”
In Iowa, Santorum has been a dogged campaigner, including bringing out his seven kids and wife to hit the trail with him in the three weeks before the Ames Straw Poll. He has visited 67 of Iowa’s 99 counties so far, and intends to visit all of them. He’s made 24 trips to Iowa, doing 86 press interviews or private meetings and holding 172 public events.
“His crowds are growing,” says Hogan Gidley, the Santorum campaign’s communications director. “Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina are all similar in this way. They don’t want you to come by on a big fancy bus and swing through town and give a rah-rah speech and then move on. They want you to sit down, look them in the eye, shake [their] hand. They expect you to answer tough questions one-on-one.”
Gidley, who spent twelve years working for Huckabee, notes that there are similarities between Santorum and the former Arkansas governor. “Both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum prefer to take their message to the people, directly to the people, directly into their living rooms.”
But Santorum faces one key disadvantage in becoming the Huckabee of 2012: Unlike that in the previous cycle, this year’s crop of candidates features plenty who are adamant social conservatives. The former Pennsylvania senator hopes his aggressive and frequent retail politicking will help him seal the deal with voters who might also be comfortable voting for Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. It might not be a crazy expectation: Iowans expect a chance to personally vet GOP candidates, says Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa governor Terry Branstad and Romney’s Iowa communications director last cycle.
“There’s an authenticity there that they like,” Albrecht says of Santorum, “and that you can only get on a one-on-one basis. The joke that’s always told around here is, ‘Are you going to support a certain candidate?’ And you say, ‘I don’t know, I’ve only met him twice.’”
Robinson says it may be better for Santorum to have his efforts pay off later rather than sooner.
“Do you want to hit the high mark right before the caucuses and win, or would you rather have a ton of media coverage in October but . . . fall back down to earth before the caucuses hit? It’s not a very fun or glamorous thing Santorum’s doing, but it has the chance to pay off — you just have to see if he’ll hit his stride at the right time,” Robinson observes.
Another wrinkle for Santorum, Robinson notes, is that there has always been the prospect of a new entrant into the race. Voters who looked askance at Santorum earlier may have been hoping for another superstar candidate — such as Chris Christie or Sarah Palin — to enter the race, and now may give him another chance. “All of this indecision makes people sit and wait. I think that if they ultimately had to choose, it would help Santorum more than anyone because I think people like him, but they just don’t know if this is the field or not,” he says.
Will a set field be enough? Santorum is unusual among Republican candidates insofar as he’s never been a “flavor of the week” and dominated the polls, even after debates where he’s shone. His 18-point loss to Democrat Bob Casey in the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate election undercuts his argument touting his prior election victories against the odds. In a year where Republicans are frantic to beat Obama, proof of electability could be necessary to attract voters. And despite his intense work on the ground in Iowa, he came in fourth at Ames.
Ultimately, it may come down to making enough of those one-on-one connections in the Hawkeye state. “I think that people are really giving Santorum a serious look,” Albrecht says. “That is because Santorum is extremely compelling when he’s on the stump. Santorum connects with people in a very positive way and a way that shows them, yeah, I could see this guy in the Oval Office.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.