Santorum campaigns for surprise finish in caucuses

AP News

11/2/2011 5:50:50 PM - AP News

Rick Santorum's workmanlike approach in Iowa may be working.

He's far from surging to the top of the field in the state that hosts the leadoff Republican presidential contest in just two months. But the former Pennsylvania senator running for the party's nomination has something to show for his yearlong effort to curry favor with Iowa Republicans, one small town at a time.

In recent weeks, he's secured endorsements from county Republican officials and legislators as well as hired more staff, critical steps in a state where a caucus victory is as much a test of a candidate's organizational strength as it is his or her popularity. And he's pulled some of Iowa's evangelical clergy _ who tend to play an outsized role with the Republican base _ into his camp, largely because of the ease with which he talks about his record in Congress as a crusader opposed to abortion rights and gay rights.

Although he barely registers in state polls, Santorum argues he is alone in putting in the miles and poised to peak in Iowa at the right time. And he claims he's undeterred by voters' flashes of fascination with his rivals.

"It's good news for us in these next two months," Santorum told two dozen GOP activists in an eastern Iowa coffee shop Wednesday. "We have the ability to be able to come out of the pack."

It would be a tough climb, for sure.

Santorum lags his rivals in money and manpower in the state; he also barely registers in polls in the state. But, his allies are quick to point out, that was the same situation former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee found himself in before he engineered a surprise Iowa caucus victory. Evangelicals and home-school advocates helped him win.

Like the 2008 caucus victor, Santorum hopes that a better-than-expected caucus finish could vault him into the New Hampshire primary. And he's trying to emerge as the favorite of religious conservatives who make up the base of the Republican Party here. Only unlike Huckabee, he's competing for their support against a slew of others _ including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, tea party favorite Herman Cain, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also is competing and leads most polls.

Santorum, who lost his Senate seat in the 2006 Republican drubbing, has spent more than two years laying the groundwork for an Iowa caucus win. That's when he began traveling to Iowa to meet influential social conservatives. Over time, he built a small core of advisers here with ties to former Rep. Jim Nussle, a Houses freshman with Santorum in 1991.

And while Santorum has not drawn large crowds, he has put in the miles on Iowa roads. On Wednesday, he was reaching his goal of campaigning in all of Iowa's 99 counties, a feat reached annually by Iowa's GOP icons Sen. Charles Grassley and Gov. Terry Branstad.

Santorum's doggedness helped lift him to fourth place in the Iowa GOP's presidential test poll in August, normally not a crowning achievement.

But, he has outlasted Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of neighboring Minnesota, who campaigned aggressively for the nonbinding contest, only to quit the race after finishing third.

At this point, the race in Iowa is wide open, and most Republicans here are undecided about whom to support as they just now start to tune into the race.

And some of those say they like what they hear from Santorum.

"There's a couple of candidates I'm still looking at, but he made the list today," Williamsburg Republican Bill Jodeit said, adding that he likes Santorum's call for a balanced budget amendment.

Part of the draw for Iowans is Santorum's frequent testimony to what cultural conservatives call life issues.

Last month, he closed a multicandidate forum in Des Moines with a tearful story about the death of an infant son. And on Tuesday night, he was at ease in the pulpit in a Baptist church in Marshalltown where he talked about banning gay marriage.

"I have been out on the front lines of this issue from Day One _ actually pre-Day One. B.C., I was involved in this issue. I was one of the prophets on this," Santorum said.

In appearance after appearance, he doesn't shy from the uphill climb he faces in this presidential race.

On Wednesday in Sigourney, Santorum cast himself as a figure not easily discouraged by long odds. He recalled his early campaign roots, beginning with his long-shot race for U.S. House in 1990. Back then, Santorum was up against a 14-year incumbent in a Democratic-leaning district.

"I had no chance of winning," he told a half-dozen people, including a teenager not old enough to vote. "I had 6 percent name recognition six months before the election and no money."

He and his wife knocked on 18,000 doors, and he won the seat.

Two decades later, Santorum is hoping for the same result _ on a much bigger stage.


Elliott reported from Marshalltown, Iowa.