NEWTON, Iowa (AP) — Is it a savvy strategy or a campaign gimmick? Many presidential candidates see a path to success in Iowa by visiting all 99 counties in the leadoff caucus state.
This week, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the first to complete the tour with a stop at Rock Rapids in the far northwest corner of the state. Santorum eked out a victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses using this approach. In part because of that, others are now fanning out across the state to match him.
The tour is often dubbed the "full Grassley," in honor of longtime Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley's annual tour of the state. Others pursuing the goal include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"It's an awesome way to campaign," said Santorum, who despite his 2012 Iowa victory was the top choice of very few in a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll. "You get a chance to sit around and talk to real people. You get a chance to hone your ideas."
The trek is a far cry from big rallies and flashy TV appearances. Earlier this week, Santorum sat with about 10 people in the central Iowa city of Newton, discussing taxes and education.
Getting even a footprint in each county can't easily be accomplished in a few weekend visits. The state of about 3 million people covers about 56,000 square miles — making it roughly six times bigger than New Hampshire, the home of the first presidential primary. Getting from Des Moines to Rock Rapids, where Santorum concluded his tour, takes more than four hours.
In addition, many of the state's rural counties are sparsely populated, so leading candidates may decide to focus their attention largely on bigger cities. In 2012, Santorum won or tied for first in 65 counties. Eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 16 and nearly as many caucus votes. Those results inspire some and deter others, depending on their standing in the race, when deciding whether to pile on all those miles.
Proponents say the tour honors intimate politicking and suits candidates with little money. Grassley, who has been visiting every county annually since 1981, was careful not to invest the practice with too much significance.
"In politics you never know for sure if something's going to work for you," he said. "But if there's no known negative, what's wrong with doing it, if you have time to do it?"
Walker, for one, has been finding the time.
"People want to hear and see the candidate," Walker said on an August swing. "I'm visiting all 99 counties."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have spent less time in Iowa and have largely campaigned in bigger cities when here. But neither is relying as heavily on Iowa as Walker and some others are.
While Santorum's underdog victory in 2012 inspires many, there are also cautionary tales about doing the full Grassley.
In the final weeks before the 2012 GOP caucuses, then-Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tore through a 99-county bus tour in 10 days, packing each day with events. She placed sixth in the caucuses.
The tour is a "great opportunity to meet as many Iowans as possible, but it is no guarantee of success," said former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn.
Still, it shows a commitment to meeting voters.
"It's not about putting a thumb tack in every county in the map" as much as it is about "shaking hands in every county," said Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart. Huckabee did the full Grassley in advance of his 2008 caucus victory.
And Santorum's tour made something of an impact. "I had no intention of supporting him," Chris Barton, 41, who owns a company that makes wooden pallets. But after hearing him talk in Newton, "I am more inclined to than I was."
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Denison, Iowa, contributed to this report.