Johnston, Iowa — One hot August night in Ames, Rick Santorum stood on the basketball court at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum and huddled with his wife, Karen. Few people noticed him, and his handlers, if he had any, were elsewhere. Reporters breezed past the couple to chat with big-name strategists working for Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. Steps away, under a cavern of Klieg lights, Sean Hannity spoke with Michele Bachmann, who was expected to sweep the upcoming Republican 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. “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 night in central Iowa, Santorum took the stage at the Stoney Creek Inn, and those summer doldrums were long forgotten. Suddenly, in the final sprint toward the caucuses, he achieved a last-minute ascent, and with a strong showing in the Hawkeye State, catapulted into national prominence. Santorum — until recently a B-list former lawmaker, one whom the talk-show producers kept waiting — became the latest to take a star turn in the GOP field.
Santorum’s Iowa showing shocked Beltway pundits, many of whom wrote him off months ago. They credit his long, strange trip into the primary’s top tier to the isolated enthusiasm of midwestern evangelicals and to finicky conservatives who settled late on an also-ran. But on the trail, at Pizza Ranch restaurants and small-town diners, it’s clear that Santorum’s climb is about more than luck or the whims of Iowa’s social conservatives. It’s not about celebrity, either. His usual outfit — single-color, slightly pilled sweater-vests over pressed white shirts — is the look of the ill-at-ease soccer dad, not the confident frontrunner. Republicans have flocked to him at the eleventh hour, encouraged by his dogged, shoe-string operation, by his accessible, at-ease manner, and, perhaps most notable, by the power of reinvention
A little more than five years ago, Santorum, then a member of the Senate GOP leadership, lost his reelection bid in Pennsylvania to Democrat Bob Casey, the lackluster scion of a popular governor. Even though Santorum was only in his mid-forties, his political obituary was filed. But he neglected to pass away: Instead, he became a television commentator and a popular figure in the conservative movement, stumping for candidates and sustaining relationships with activists. He became, in the words of one aide, “looser, less stuffy.” When he was at the top of the Washington heap, he became a tad insulated, friends say, and it was only when he was tossed into the wilderness that he began to seriously engage grassroots groups, working with them as a compatriot and not as a high-powered politician
In 2010, Santorum jumped on the Iowa “judge bus” and helped knock liberal justices off of the state’s high court. That experience introduced him to many of the volunteers who now work as lead organizers on his presidential campaign, including Chuck Laudner, the political strategist who directed his Iowa efforts. “It’s been a blast to watch this thing come together,” Laudner says. “The biggest thing, to me personally, is that we’re having fun — he’s having fun. We built this campaign from the ground up,” he says. Early on, Santorum recognized that he’d have to use a different campaign model than the rest of the field. With few reporters paying attention, no money, and a candidate who looked more like a math teacher than a leading man, Laudner says that “everything that we knew about how to generate momentum, in terms of ads and media,” was discarded. Organization, the campaign’s only option, became paramount.
Santorum, often packing only his cellphone and a book, jumped into the “Chuck Truck,” the silver Dodge Ram 1500 pickup owned and driven by Laudner. Together, the pair set off to hamlets and small cities, from Sioux City to Davenport, asking voters, one by one, to consider Santorum and to sign up to be “caucus captains,” the people who speak in the candidate’s behalf at each of Iowa’s 1,774 voting precincts. By early December, Santorum and Laudner had enlisted hundreds. By mid-December, as Santorum began to finally get a look from on-the-fence Republicans, that number began to creep above 1,000. The website for the campaign, RickSantorum.com, was besieged with donations large and small. From July through September, the campaign collected a mere $700,000. By New Year’s Day, it was skyrocketing beyond that.