Energized Santorum campaign showing confidence after surge

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa —The Rick Santorum Show sold out all across Iowa Sunday. But with less than 48 hours remaining before Republicans here vote, the question is how the groundswell of enthusiasm for Santorum will translate on caucus night.

His aides insist that they are well-placed to capitalize. "We have 1,500 precinct captains already," Santorum's senior political advisor Hogan Gidley told The Hill after a final Sunday evening event in this city in Iowa's far northwestern corner. "He's well-prepared to move forward."

Gidley added that "our website traffic is up by about 500 percent in the last couple of weeks" and that fundraising has "just exploded."

ADVERTISEMENT
Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, the only statewide official to endorse Santorum, told The Hill on Saturday evening that he was confident the former Pennsylvania senator would achieve a top three finish. Twenty-four hours later, Shultz stuck to that prediction but added an extra dollop of confidence.

"You are seeing a new candidate, a new Rick Santorum, who is so energized," he enthused Sunday evening. "I think a win or a close-second place finish will just continue that momentum."

Santorum aides have every reason to present this narrative of their man's rise. But their assertions were buttressed by the crowds.  At events in the afternoon and evening in Sioux Falls, Orange City and here, Santorum's events were standing room only.

In one of the now-standard lines in his stump speech, he refers to these events being his last visits to the cities in question "until I come back in the fall." The implication — that he will return during the general election campaign as the GOP's candidate — is cheered at every turn.

Still, there are a number of questions unanswered, not least whether the crowds that are showing up for Santorum are comprised entirely of confirmed supporters or, as would seem more likely, are being swollen by curious Iowans drawn to seeing the current person in the spotlight.

As the crowd spilled out from Santorum's Orange City event, one middle-aged man was asked by his female companion what he thought of Santorum's performance, "I could vote for him," the man replied cautiously, "but I'll have to do some more research first."

Santorum will also have to weather attacks from his rivals. On the political talk shows Sunday Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), son of GOP hopeful Rep. Ron Paul, suggested Santorum was a "fair-weather conservative.” Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) has attacked Santorum’s supposed appetite for pork spending during his time as a senator representing Pennsylvania.

"'Fair-weather conservative'? First of all, I don't even know what that means," Gidley shot back. 

"Secondly, the last person I am willing to take lectures from about the use of taxpayer dollars is the man who took money out of taxpayers' pockets in the state of Texas to pay for the education of illegal aliens."

Santorum himself seems confident on one hand, yet not entirely sure of his good fortune on the other. At almost every stop, he urged supporters to wear badges showing their support for him — "on the outside of your jacket" he often stressed — perhaps mindful of continued doubts about his electability.

But his rise is, at the least, reaffirming the idea that many Republicans, especially in the state's most conservative regions, are craving an alternative to putative national frontrunner Mitt Romney.

At his event here, Santorum, without naming Romney, insisted that the forthcoming general election would be won by presenting "bright bold colors" not "pastels" to the electorate. He also implicitly compared himself with Ronald Reagan, citing the 1980 election cycle as an instance where Republicans went for a candidate from the right of the party and were rewarded with victory.

As Santorum has become more prominent, however, he has faced greater scrutiny.

His endorsement of Romney in the presidential race four years ago could be particularly problematic. In a CNN interview delivered in front of a group of smiling supporters after his event here, he argued that he had chosen Romney as the less-bad option, from a conservative perspective, than the eventual nominee, John McCain.

Santorum has mostly eschewed harsh attacks on Romney. He prefers to leave his criticism thinly veiled.

In Orange City earlier Sunday, he recalled being asked by pundits, when he was low in the polls, "has politics changed, does meeting people not matter anymore, can you just run these viral, 30,000 feet campaigns now?"

As Santorum recounted in the interviews, he would reply, "My strategy is to trust in the people of Iowa and believe you can't buy this state."