Santorum hopes for breakout in Iowa caucuses

— Rick Santorum’s Iowa campaign headquarters, situated in the sleepy back corner of a suburban office park outside Des Moines, is suddenly a very busy place.

Over the past few days, 15 new phone lines have been installed to accommodate his growing legion of volunteers. Traffic on his Web site is quadruple what it was two weeks ago, with most of the clicks coming from Iowa. And while his staff doesn’t talk numbers, they say that Thursday was the biggest fundraising day yet for a presidential campaign that until recently was fueled by little more than one man’s refusal to face reality.

In politics as in life, timing is everything. And if the former senator from Pennsylvania is finally having his moment, it couldn’t have come at a better one.

Why is Santorum suddenly catching on? As any candidate would, he credits his message. He also has benefited from sheer doggedness and the fact that so many of his rivals have stumbled. For many conservative voters looking for an alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner, Santorum is who is left.

“We always felt that we were going to have to go out and make the case, that we weren’t going to have the money. We weren’t going to get the coverage. We weren’t going to get the attention at the debates,” he said.

No one has worked harder at making his case. Santorum has been all but living in his strategist Chuck Laudner’s Ram truck, which they have begun calling the “chuck wagon” because they eat there so much.

One candidate after another has burst into the spotlight this year, only to have it reveal their flaws. Now, as Iowa voters reach the eve of the first presidential contest, they are starting to take a look at a candidate who has been in the background all along.

“He’s the all-around man I’ve really been wanting to see,” said Tom Weig, who with his wife, Karen, had driven three hours from their home in Graettinger to drop off a $50 check at Santorum’s office. “We’ve been watching the debates for quite a while. The last debate really made my mind up. He’s always had to fight to get any attention.”

Not any more. The latest polls suggest that Santorum has an excellent shot at coming in with at least a third-place finish in Tuesday’s caucuses — a prospect that would have seemed laughable just a few weeks ago.

In all, Santorum has logged more than 250 campaign appearances in Iowa since June, more than Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) combined. Only Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) comes anywhere near that total, with around 200.

The first real signs that the effort was paying off, however, did not come until several weeks ago. One breakthrough was a string of influential endorsements in recent weeks, including those of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and evangelical activists Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley.

Santorum said their backing has helped reassure voters that his is not a futile candidacy in a year when Republicans believe they have a real chance to unseat President Obama.

Some of those who are thinking about supporting him say they don’t care if some consider it a wasted vote.

“He’s got sincerity, that honest approach to solving problems,” said John Amato, who raises funds for a nonprofit that helps care for the developmentally disabled. “I want to go with what my heart feels, and let God decide the rest. I just want the person who shares my ideals and shares my thinking. And if that means beating Obama, then great.”

The Iowa caucuses have a poor record of picking the ultimate GOP nominee, but they do a pretty good job of thinning the herd.

The old cliche has it that there are three tickets out of Iowa. And if one of those top three finishers happens to be Santorum, he insists that will be a win — especially if he places ahead of such better-funded rivals as Perry, Gingrich and Bachmann, each of whom had a stint as the front-runner.

“That little spark, and people will start to say, ‘he is the alternative’ ” to Romney, whom many conservatives mistrust, Santorum said in an interview.

One factor that will determine how well Santorum does on Tuesday is whether his new momentum can capture the crucial bloc of evangelical and socially conservative voters.

Four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the only candidate making an effective appeal to evangelicals. Largely on their support, he mounted a late surge and trounced Romney.

This time, however, a number of the candidates — Santorum, Bachmann, Perry and Gingrich — have been competing for, and fragmenting, the evangelical vote. Some pastors worried that the divisions will mean they have no any influence on the result, which would probably work to Romney’s benefit.

Also in question is whether the social issues that have been the hallmark of Santorum’s political career will matter as much, even among conservatives, when the economy ranks as voters’ top concern.

On the stump, Santorum often touts his against-the-odds story as proof that his appeal can transcend his ideology. In 1994, he was the first true conservative that Pennsylvania had elected to the Senate in more than four decades.

What he rarely mentions is that Pennsylvania voters turned him out of office 12 years later in a crushing 18-point defeat.

If Santorum does manage to do well in Iowa, the real question may be: Then what?

It is not clear how well his brand of conservatism will play beyond Iowa and perhaps South Carolina. And like many underfinanced candidates , he may discover that he has outrun his supply lines.

Next week, Santorum will begin running his first radio and television ads in New Hampshire, where he has made more appearances than Romney since June. Though that state is not as conservative as Iowa, Santorum insisted his shoe-leather approach will pay dividends there as well.

“You go up to our office right now in Bedford, and it’s jampacked with people making phone calls and it has been for weeks,” Santorum said.

Friday afternoon found Santorum in a sports bar full of Iowa State fans who gathered to watch their team battle Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Among them was Kittie Peacock, 55, the manager of a Des Moines retail store, who said she believes other Iowans are getting to see what she’s known about Santorum for a few months.

A strong showing in Iowa, she said, will mean more media attention and new dollars for Santorum.

“I’m voting to give him a chance,” she said.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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