GOP Presidential Primary

Rick Santorum finds his moment

Rick Santorum is the latest Republican to buck the establishment and rise in the polls, and his campaign thinks he’s well-positioned to capitalize on a surge that may be perfectly timed.

Until this week, the former senator from Pennsylvania had been an afterthought in Iowa voters’ search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, but that changed when a CNN-Time poll released Wednesday showed him in third place with 16 percent support of likely Republican caucus-goers.

The conservative trailed Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), and had overtaken former Speaker Newt Gingrich, the onetime poll setter.

{mosads}Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Herman Cain, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all sat at the top of the polls only to wilt beneath the intense media focus and attacks from rivals that come with it.

But unlike Cain and Gingrich, whose surprise rise in the polls exposed a dearth of campaign infrastructure, Santorum was ready to move when his time came.

“He’s put in all the legwork,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa GOP. “Over the last couple weeks all the momentum on the ground is Santorum.

“Perry gets a good response at his events and Bachmann too, but when you’re there you don’t feel it, there aren’t endorsements, and with Santorum, that hasn’t been the case.”

Santorum has played the retail politics game in Iowa the way the experts say it should be played. He’s spent more time in the Hawkeye State than any of the other GOP candidates, and he’s visited all 99 of the state’s counties.

On Thursday the Santorum campaign announced that it was moving his events into bigger venues and was adding stops to his already packed schedule.

This week Santorum will look to appeal to Iowa’s conservative, Christian voters through a series of “Faith, Family and Freedom” town-hall meetings in Coralville, Muscatine and Marshalltown.




He has also made time for some lighter events at a candy shop, a campaign rally and a couple of college football bowl-watching parties over the next two days.

And while it’s still early, Santorum seems at ease in dealing with the media over his newfound success. The morning after the CNN poll was released, Santorum went on MSNBC and seemed comfortable battling fiery Democrat Al Sharpton.

“I can argue with you about some of your ugly statements on the president and all of that, but that would probably help you in the primary if you and I got in an argument this morning,” Sharpton said. 



“Go head Al. Give it to me,” Santorum responded laughing.

Poll watchers in Iowa have been keeping a close eye on Santorum, Perry and Bachmann, as evangelical voters in the state have yet to coalesce around a single candidate. If they do, evangelicals could propel one of the trio to victory as they did in 2008 for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

This week’s poll suggested evangelical voters may turn to Santorum.

As a two-term senator, Santorum was a fierce advocate for anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage policies, and he was quick to draw a line Thursday between him and the rest of the field on conservative values.

“There’s no surprises. You know I’ve got a strong consistent, conservative record … married one time, seven children,” he said on MSNBC, in an apparent swipe at rival Gingrich, who is on his third marriage.

And it’s not just citizen voters taking notice – Santorum is the only one of the three conservative, Christian candidates to land endorsements from the evangelical establishment in Iowa.

Perhaps the most significant of these is from conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader, who called Santorum “a stalwart and a soldier for the sanctity of human life” and promised to “mobilize whatever resources” he had to help the Santorum campaign.

“I saw him as a champion for the family in the U.S. House, I saw him as a champion for the family in the U.S. Senate,” Vander Plaats said.

There’s still one wild card endorsement that could really fuel the Santorum campaign — conservative kingmaker Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has gone pheasant hunting with Santorum twice this season, and whose endorsement would be a tremendous boost in the final days to any of the candidate’s campaigns.

King hasn’t decided whether he’ll endorse before the caucuses, and he’s good friends with Bachmann. But he’s also said that he wants to endorse someone who will be around for the long haul, and the Minnesota representative’s campaign seems to be falling apart. On Wednesday, Bachmann’s campaign chairman left to join the Paul campaign.

A strong showing for Santorum is still no sure thing.

Bachmann and Perry have been competing hard for the conservative, Christian bloc. Both have tacked hard to the right recently, and Perry in particular picked what some viewed as a convenient moment to harden his stance against abortion, saying an anti-abortion film he watched this week made him realize that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.

But Santorum already was beginning to generate buzz before the latest poll numbers came out. He’s been the only second-tier candidate not to surge in this primary season, even though according to a Public Policy Poll released on Wednesday, he has the best favorability numbers in the field.

Fifty-six percent of Iowans say they have a favorable view of Santorum, compared to only 29 percent who have an unfavorable view. He’s also the most frequent second choice of voters in the Hawkeye State at 14 percent.

Santorum said Tuesday he would drop out of the race if he came in last in the caucus, but that may no longer be a concern. As he pointed out on Wednesday, his campaign is “moving in the other direction.”

— Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.

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