Politics & Policy

Santorum, the Dark Horse

He may not win, but he could surprise.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Eighteen months later, Santorum is taking that same dogged, low-key approach into caucus season. Beyond his shoestring operation, the backing of prominent social conservatives is playing an important, often behind-the-scenes role in bolstering his quiet winter surge. Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Family Leader, a social-conservative group, endorsed Santorum on Tuesday, as did Chuck Hurley, the director of the Iowa Family Policy Center. These high-profile reinforcements add heft to Santorum’s evangelical bloc in Iowa, which already included “well-connected and influential pastors like Cary Gordon of Sioux City, Terry Amann of Des Moines, and Albert Calaway of Indianola,” according to The Iowa Republican.

Santorum aides point out that Mike Huckabee built a caucus-winning coalition in 2008 with a nearly identical base. Vander Plaats, for his part, was the force behind Huckabee’s Iowa campaign, using Christian meeting places and mailing lists to generate enthusiasm for a little-known candidate. Unlike Huckabee, Santorum has not had a bevy of headlines and increased popularity coming out of the autumn debates, but his faith-rich politics echo the former Arkansas governor’s. “We’ve done some specific events geared around pastors, but not a lot,” Santorum says. More important, he says, is being available. Spending time, rather than money, has its benefits.

#ad#“A lot of pastors come to town-hall meetings,” Santorum says, and they, like most Iowans, want to know where a candidate stands on moral issues. By running an accessible, lightly staffed campaign, Santorum has been able to meet hundreds of religious leaders, all of whom coordinate networks, be it a prayer group or big-city congregation. “I do try to go to churches, and go to Mass every Sunday, and when I’m in Iowa, I make sure to go to one or two other churches, meeting the pastors and the congregants there. It’s not a specific focus, but it is part of what we do,” he says. “It’s the same approach I take with business groups, gun groups, pro-life groups, tax groups, tea-party groups. All of them are part of this grassroots effort.”

“I’m out there talking about faith, family, limited government, and strong national security,” Santorum says. “That’s what people don’t really understand about my campaign. It’s not different messages for different folks. Instead we have a very strong and consistent message about who we are, as Americans, and how we’re going to solve our problems. The foundations of that are faith and family, as well as free markets and limited government. Following God’s will in our lives is ultimately how our Founders believed that we would be great.” That pitch, Santorum says, is connecting — reminding Republicans that he is not running as a fringe, one-issue candidate, but as a former senator who, while faithful, is also a full-spectrum conservative.

And in western Iowa, which is more rural and evangelical than other parts of the state, Santorum sees real movement. “They call this area God’s country for a reason,” says Chuck Laudner, a Santorum adviser. “These voters are Christian, constitutional conservatives. They know what they want, they’re like-minded, and they organize themselves, paying little attention to television ads and campaign maneuvers.” Rep. Steve King, the region’s congressman, agrees. “Rick Santorum is connecting the most in the area,” he says. In the 32 counties west of Des Moines, “it wouldn’t surprise me if someone like Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann did unusually well,” says Steve Grubbs, a GOP consultant who recently directed Herman Cain’s Iowa campaign.

Indeed, Santorum says his organization, often unnoticed by the political press, may be able to rival that of Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who leads many state polls, on caucus night. “He’s got a lot of college kids working for him,” Santorum says. “We have some college kids working for us, but we’re not as big on the college campuses,” and that is fine by him. “The people on the college campuses, let’s put it this way, are not your typical Republicans,” he says. Santorum bets that on a cold January evening, western, conservative farmers, small-business owners, and pastors and their flocks will influence the outcome more than campus fervor will.

#page#“We’ve spent a lot of time in towns that the other candidates simply have not,” Santorum says. Bachmann and Texas governor Rick Perry, he acknowledges, are gaining notice this week for bus tours around the state and could see their own sparks. But his campaign has not “rushed,” trying to hit all 99 counties within days, sprinting toward the finish line, he says. “We spent time early on and it wasn’t a 15-minute stop, it was one hour or two hours,” he adds. “Going to the county dinners in Osceola County and Lyon County, up in the northwest corner, these tiny counties, has been important. We spent three hours up there and then had drinks after dinner.”

“The beautiful thing about Iowa is that you can’t buy Iowa,” Santorum says. “We’ve seen some other candidates spend millions of dollars on ads and then not move in the polls. In other states, it’s different — you’re not going to be able to do the kind of grassroots campaign that we’ve done in Iowa.” Of course, Santorum, who has few dollars to spend and a wisp of a national organization, wants to contend in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But he admits that in order to do that with any seriousness, he needs to win or place highly in the Iowa caucuses. And should he do so, money and volunteers will be only part of what’s required. He would need national attention, enough buzz to fuel a battle against the better-financed frontrunners.

#ad#“Maybe it turned out to be the best thing for us,” Santorum chuckles, reflecting on how his campaign has plodded forward. “I’ve said that all along, that giving people a little taste of who we are,” from Ames to Iowa City, pays dividends — mostly in the sense that voters become curious about, not exhausted by, Santorum. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Gee, I wish you had gotten more questions at the debates.’ And now, as people are making their decisions, they’re learning more about us, taking the time to attend events and read about our positions. I think that’s why we’re picking up momentum.”

Handshakes, however, will do only so much. This week, his campaign is pulling together dollars to keep its first television ad on the Iowa airwaves. It’s a positive spot, highlighting his record and social-conservative credentials. Santorum’s strategists dubbed the ad “Sing, Sing, Sing,” because it includes quotes from Sarah Palin, Huckabee, and broadcaster Glenn Beck, all “singing” Santorum’s praises. A pro-Santorum outside political-action group — the Red, White and Blue Fund, a new “super PAC” — is also airing an ad, spending $350,000 to tell Iowans about Santorum’s “true conservative” values. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we are raising more money now than we ever have,” Santorum says. “We’re hopeful that in the last week or so we can keep putting resources up on television or into mailings. But we will be very conservative about what we spend. Massive TV buys are probably not part of the equation.”

“There is going to be a conservative alternative to [Romney or Gingrich],” Santorum predicts. “Someone told me yesterday that there are three primaries out here in Iowa — Ron Paul’s libertarian primary, the mainstream primary between Gingrich and Romney, and the conservative primary, which is me and Bachmann, and Perry is trying to get into that category. Our theory is that we have to win or do very well in the conservative primary” in order to rival the winner of the Gingrich–Romney brawl and Paul’s strength. “I think we’re in a position to do that,” he says. “We haven’t had many ups and downs. We just haven’t. We’ve been out there, making our case. We still are doing that and we have over 700 caucus captains ready to go.”

In terms of a nationally competitive presidential campaign, 700 volunteers is a speck on the radar, nothing more. But in Iowa, Santorum says, that means something. Between 100,000 and 120,000 Republicans will participate in the caucuses, according to state GOP operatives. It has all the dynamics of a local race, much like the ones Santorum mounted in the Pittsburgh area as a young comer. According to the latest Des Moines Register poll, more than 70 percent of likely caucus-goers are up for grabs. Santorum, with his “slow and steady” mantra, senses opportunity. He may not win, but he could surprise.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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