Posted at 01:55 AM ET, 01/02/2012

In ‘God’s country,’ Santorum wins converts

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa – “Welcome to Lyon County,” Holly Spitler said with a smile. “This is God’s country.”

A sprightly 83-year-old retiree, Spitler moved with her husband, Jack, from Des Moines to this two-stoplight town 56 years ago.

“And we wouldn’t go back,” she said. “It’s a Christian community, very much so. It’s just good people. Just lots and lots of good people.”

The Spitlers had been undecided in the Republican presidential race until tonight, when they were among the 200 or so people who came to see former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum speak in a basement meeting room here. Now, both of them are giving Santorum the thumbs-up.

What won them over?

“His wholesomeness,” Holly Spitler said. “And you know, he’s a God-fearing man. He sounds like he’s very sincere in what he’s going to do, and he’s acquainted with what’s going on. So, you bet.”

Added Jack Spitler: “I like the fact that he just talks and he tells the answers, and he doesn’t say ‘ifs, ands or buts.’ ... We have people in government today that just talk out of both sides of their mouth, and that just disturbs me.”

It’s no accident that Santorum found himself here in this deeply conservative community of 2,500 people less than 48 hours out from Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) won the Iowa caucuses with 34 percent of the vote. Here in Lyon County, at the state’s northwestern tip, Huckabee swept with 42 percent to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 22 percent. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) garnered 20 percent, less than half Huckabee’s total.

Hours before his Rock Rapids event Sunday night, Santorum delivered a speech heavy on religious imagery to a similarly-sized crowd in nearby Orange City. The small town, known for its Dutch Reformed Christian roots, is the seat of Sioux County, which gave Huckabee 53 percent in the 2008 caucuses. McCain took 16 percent and Romney took only 14 percent.

Drive through downtown Orange City on the first day of the new year and you will see the streets decked out not with giant snowflakes or candy canes but with Christmas lights in the shapes of crosses and doves.

Many of the voters who attended Santorum’s events in both Orange City and Rock Rapids had been among the 41 percent of likely caucus-goers who said in Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll that they were still undecided ahead of Tuesday’s nominating contest.

And if their comments upon exiting Sunday’s town halls were any indication, those voters — many of whom have cycled through several different candidates over the past few months — are coming home to Santorum.

“All along, I kind of understood different things about him that I appreciated,” said Tom Cole, a 65-year-old semi-retiree from George, Iowa, who had previously been undecided. “Kind of followed my thought process. I liked him. But I was one of the people — like he said tonight — ‘I’m not sure he’s electable.’ And I finally determined, I don’t know that. ... He may well be electable. And so, if I’m going to choose somebody who I believe is closest to my values and thoughts, he’s it.”

Cole, who asked Santorum a question about what his priorities would be as president, said that Sunday was his first time meeting the candidate in person. He said that he came across as a “sharp guy” and “a good family man.”

“I’d looked at Gingrich,” he said. “I looked at the governor of Texas, Perry. What’s interesting, I think, in the field — all of them have certain things that I’m agreeable with. I understand what they’re saying. I agree with what they’re saying. And then there will be something that, ‘Ah, you’re kind of way over here and I’m kind of way over there.’ ”

After seeing Santorum on Sunday, Cole said it finally came into focus that “he and I are just kind of on the same wavelength.”

Al TeSlaa, a soybean, corn and cattle farmer from Rock Rapids, attended Santorum’s event with his wife, Phyllis. Both previously on the fence, they, too, are now lining up behind Santorum.

“I’ve been switching back and forth,” Al TeSlaa said. “I was at the debate in Sioux City. ... Up to that time, I had Gingrich pretty well as the frontrunner in my mind. But after that night, I kind of changed my mind. So then, I’ve been in limbo ever since for the past two weeks. And the last day or two, I’m really strong for Rick now.”

Phyllis TeSlaa, who works as a piano teacher and church organist, said that she had originally backed Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) but decided over the past week to support Santorum.

“I like what he stands for,” she said. “Strong family. And a lot of good issues there. Family, life, things like that. ... I just feel that he can pull our country together and do what needs to be done. Like I said, I didn’t decide until this past week because, you know, there were six of them.”

With polls showing the race in a dead heat among Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Santorum, whether or not social conservatives such as the voters in Orange City and Rock Rapids break for Santorum could prove decisive.

Opinions about Romney among Santorum’s newest backers were mixed: some said they would absolutely back him if he becomes the GOP nominee, while others said they had concerns about his previous liberal positions on social issues; and still others said that they could be persuaded by their neighbors to vote for him on Tuesday night.

Views about Paul were far more uniform. Most voters described used some variation of the word “scary” in describing the libertarian-leaning Texas Republican, particularly when it comes to his views on foreign policy.

“He frightened me in some way,” Holly Spitler said. “He just seemed so, I don’t know. He just seemed kind of, a little loose goose. A loaded cannon or something.”

Voters here have also been inundated with mailers and phone calls — in Spitler’s case, “eight a day” — something that many said Sunday they won’t miss come Wednesday morning.

“In fact, I was at the point where I wasn’t even going to vote, I was so mad at the phone calls,” Holly Spitler said. “So now they’ll stop, though, and life can get back to normal.”

She shot a glance over at her husband and smiled. “We can do our puzzles!”

Read more from PostPolitics:

GOP’s battle plan: Use Obama against Obama

Romney’s ‘big hill to climb’ with conservatives

Republicans make final push in Iowa

Monday Fix: The line on the Iowa caucuses

By  |  01:55 AM ET, 01/02/2012

 
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