Rick Santorum continues to struggle in the latest poll of Iowa Republicans, but GOP leaders there say he could be positioned to make a move in the Hawkeye State.
The former Pennsylvania senator, who is best known for his strident social conservatism, slipped to 2 percent support in an American Research Group poll of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa released Thursday, putting him in seventh place in the poll.
But well-connected Iowa Republicans who have not endorsed any candidate said that voters who meet Santorum often warm to him, and that his heavy investment in the state could pay dividends, much like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's time in Iowa helped him win there in 2008. Santorum has spent 58 days in the state in the last year, far more time than any other candidate this cycle.
"Santorum is the one guy that when he gets out there people put him on a higher level — they weren't expecting to support him and after they engage with him they have second thoughts that they might," said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member who heads the prominent socially conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "He's been as persistent as anybody here and that earns him credit."
Sam Clovis, a Sioux City-based conservative radio host, said that though Santorum has helped himself with strong debate performances, his real asset is that he "comes across as being genuine" and his face-to-face efforts with Iowa voters are helping him.
"He's personalized this, he's doing Iowa politics, he's out knocking on doors," he said. "I think he's done extremely well out there."
Still, Santorum needs to start translating warm feelings into actual support by proving he can be a viable candidate — and while his retail politics strategy costs much less than a campaign with a larger infrastructure, money still matters.
Bob Vander Plaats, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate who heads the socially conservative umbrella organization Family Leader, said the only thing holding back the Pennsylvanian is fundraising.
"If Santorum gets enough resources he could be the Mike Huckabee of this thing," he said.