In Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum is counting on his personal bonds with voters

OSKALOOSA, IOWA — If former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) is able to translate his late surge into a strong showing in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, it won’t be because of money spent on advertising — his budget pales in comparison to those of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.

And it won’t be because of his sparkling debate performances — as a longtime second-tier candidate, he received limited airtime during those events.

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Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum courted young voters Tuesday as he seeks to surprise his rivals with a strong showing in Iowa's lead-off precinct caucuses. (Jan. 3)

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum courted young voters Tuesday as he seeks to surprise his rivals with a strong showing in Iowa's lead-off precinct caucuses. (Jan. 3)

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But it may be because of the personal connections he has built with people such as Steve Boender, a farmer who met Santorum in May.

“I soon came to realize, as I got to know him, how he walked his talk. And he knew what he was talking about,” Boender said.

Conventional wisdom says presidential candidates win in Iowa by forging that kind of bond with voters. Now, Santorum is banking that this is still a path to victory, despite the focus this year on massive spending by “super PACs” and the influence of Fox News interviews and nationally televised debates.

After running behind for much of the race, Santorum pushed into third place in the latest Des Moines Register poll. On Tuesday, a key test for him will be whether a network of local supporters such as Boender can mount the organizational effort needed to draw enough voters to the caucuses — an operation his campaign cannot afford to buy.

Back in the spring, Boender ferried each of the candidates to a high school here for voter forums hosted by a conservative Christian group. He then wrote each candidate a thank you note, but only Santorum responded with a handwritten letter, he said.

That led to many e-mail exchanges and to Santorum bringing his wife and seven children for a week-long stay at a cabin on the Boender family farm in August.

On the last night, the two families shared a dinner of grilled corn, barbecued chicken and pork loin, then prayed and sang hymns.

Santorum has spent months trying to create an army of Steve Boenders — crisscrossing Iowa with more than 360 events and visits to all 99 counties.

“I think it can work,” Boender said. “At the caucus, you’re around your friends and neighbors. People will be able to stand up and say: ‘I know Rick. He’s real. He’s courageous. He’s principled, and he’ll actually accomplish what he sets out to do.’ ”

‘We love a Cinderella story’

Santorum completed his statewide tour in November, then spent the final weeks before the caucuses revisiting strategic strongholds.

“Oskaloosa is near and dear to our hearts,” he said as he opened a rousing address to about 150 supporters — including Boender and his wife, Jan — at the Smokey Row coffee shop Friday. “We went out and worked hard. And, most people would say, in anonymity.”

For a long time, the quiet grass-roots effort appeared to be going nowhere. But now, after watching his opponents rise and fall in the polls, Santorum is something of a last man standing, and his come-from-behind status is suddenly attracting lavish media attention.

There were so many television cameras crowded into the tiny Reising Sun Cafe in Polk City to catch Santorum on Monday morning — including reporters from Italy and Australia — that voters were forced out into the frigid winter air.

“Truth be told, we Americans, we love a Cinderella story,” said Bob Vander Plaats, who was chairman of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s successful 2008 campaign in Iowa and now heads the group Boender works with. Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum nearly two weeks ago.

“We love someone who came out of nowhere. Those things are going for him now. Mitt Romney, for all the money he has, wishes he could buy this story line right now,” Vander Plaats said.

Winning Huckabee backers

Santorum is hoping to activate Christian conservatives, many of them former Huckabee supporters, who have splintered among the candidates.

In his stump speech, he highlights his experience in foreign affairs and fiscal policy from his days in Congress — but above all he sells himself as the race’s most aggressive advocate against abortion and same-sex marriage.

“There are a lot of candidates who run who check the box. You know, ‘I’m pro-life,’ ” Santorum said Friday at a restaurant in Marshalltown. “The question is, number one, do you feel comfortable going out there and advocating for a culture of life? And number two, are you going to lead and try to move the ball forward, to try to advance the culture of life? I think if you look at the track record, we have the best track record of actually doing both of those things.”

Local political blogger Shane Vander Hart, who promoted Huckabee four years ago, is doing the same for Santorum.

So is Dan Davidson, a Virginian who used to run an online radio show called “Stuck on Huck” but on Sunday broadcast “We Pick Rick” from Santorum’s Iowa headquarters.

“He’s got some ground to make up,” said Lori Jungling, the Iowa co-chair of Huck PAC who is now a Santorum caucus captain. “But people just need to get out and tell friends and family. This is how we’ve always done the Iowa caucuses — amongst ourselves.”

Recalling his own effort, Huckabee said that in an unsettled electorate, that kind of support brings reliability.

“I had very strong support, and it was very loyal,” he said Saturday. “And they were absolutely going to go to the caucuses.”

Staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

 
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