Earlier this year it looked like Iowa wouldn’t matter much in the GOP presidential race. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and then Texas Gov. Rick Perry and next Herman Cain had a lock on the caucuses; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wasn’t going to make it a priority, and social issues (critical to the caucus electorate) were not the focus of the campaign. But who was up is now down, Cain is out (in a bizarre exit speech), Romney is playing harder (albeit not to win but to place in the money) and infidelity is suddenly a subject of debate among the chattering class. Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum ( who may gain some of Cain’s most conservative supporters) has a chance to break through the clutter, which will be reduced by Cain’s absence.

The latest Des Moines Register poll (the only one that has a track record of accuracy) has Gingrich in the lead, but only by 7 points at 25 percent. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is coming up strong at 18 percent, in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney at 16 percent. Bachmann is at 8 percent with Santorum and Perry now tied at 6 percent. With Cain’s departure, pundits seem certain his votes will go to Gingrich. But it’s just as likely, if not more so, that Gingrich’s Washington-insider profile is a turnoff to supporters of the unconventional Cain; These voters could well divide up among Paul, Bachmann, Santorum and Perry. Perry’s campaign is already out with emails attacking Gingrich on his record on global warming. Wait for the ads with clips of Gingrich on that couch with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.).

Romney has to be relieved after a couple of tough weeks to be within striking distance of the top. Moreover, a hearty endorsement from the Sioux City Journal (from a region of the state in which he did very well in 2008) will give him a needed boost.

While Gingrich sucks up most of the oxygen in the national media, Santorum has been on the ground in Iowa more frequently than any of his rivals, trying to capi­tal­ize on the second and third thoughts evangelical voters may have about standing up in front of their neighbors (it’s a caucus, not a primary by secret ballot) to declare their trust in a former House speaker whose personal history and character are the subject of intense criticism.

Can Santorum pry the voters away from what has devolved into a sordid reality show to hear his argument that he’s the most anti-Romney candidate in the race who is also experienced and actually embodies social conservative values? It’s been a struggle so far. But recently he has gotten a boost from Sarah Palin’s enthusiastic words of praise and from the endorsement of prominent Sioux Falls pastor Cary Gordon.

I spoke to him by phone as he was going from one campaign event to another. He says that his hard work had provided him with a “level of viability” that made him a figure others would feel comfortable touting. He’s not buying into the Gingrich bandwagon phenomenon. “He’s got about 25 percent of the vote. That means three-fourths of Republicans haven’t jumped on.” I asked him what he thought of Gingrich’s declaration that he’d be the nominee. He laughs, “Very Newtonian.”

Santorum was both more relaxed and self-critical than he’s been in the past. He says that he’s still hopeful that “issues will win it” for him, but he concedes, “I have not always been the best candidate.” In particular he says that the debates give time for only 30- or 60-second answers and are geared to flashy one-liners, rather than a more serious dissection of the issues. He concedes that he’s sometimes tried to cram too much into the debate answers. “Sometimes I came across like the FedEx guy,” he jokes.

But in a real sense he is both the anti-Romney and the anti-Gingrich. He says, “I’m someone who believes in limited government.” Indeed, in contrast to Gingrich, who never met a cool technological project he didn’t think government should fund, Santorum has been cautious about the use of federal power. His signature achievements in the Senate (welfare reform, Iran sanctions, a partial-birth abortion bill) are a far cry from Gingrich’s fondness for subsidies and schemes like the individual mandate for health care.

I ask him about Social Security. He traces his record in support of individual accounts to his first Senate race (“It hurt me”) and in trying to come up with reform plans during the Clinton and Bush years. In the 1990s he was already warning the public that we would need to move back the retirement age. In other words, he’s been the consistent conservative on that one. At the same time, he’s grounded in reality. He explains that throughout his time in office time there was a Social Security surplus that might be used to start up individual accounts. But now we’re deeply in debt. Under these circumstances he calls ideas like Gingrich’s and Cain’s individual account plans “a fantasy.” He asks, “How many hundreds of billions more are we going to go into debt” to set up their schemes?

He tells me that he’d like to debate Gingrich one-on-one. Although they had a sit-down earlier in the campaign in New Hampshire, it wasn’t broadcast, and few saw it. However, Gingrich now wants no part of the former senator, who has shown himself to be very knowledgable and aggressive in the debates. Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond brushed off Santorum’s challenge. He said that Gingrich is interested in debating Jon Huntsman now (no doubt). Gingrich’s pomposity and veneer of knowledge would be easy targets for Santorum, so don’t expect face-off anytime soon.

With Cain gone, Santorum will have more time and exposure in the final debates. And with favorable local coverage and renewed focus on family values he could well finish ahead of better-funded opponents. Santorum also has one other benefit: He willingly talks directly to the media. He says that an effective candidate “can’t hide from the media” and has to be able to speak fluently and without gaffes. (Take that, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich).

He’s running a full-page ad on Monday in the Des Moines Register with the headline: “America Surrenders; Not on my watch!” A photo of his wife (the only one he’s ever had) and his family sends the unmistakable image: This is what family values look like. In the text he promises, “As President, I will protect America’s moral foundation, empower American families and build America’s economic freedom. And I won’t compromise on my values to do it.” The accomplishments he lists range from authorship of the partial-birth abortion ban to his work on welfare reform to his support for Israel.

Meanwhile, Iowa has become a test for Newt Gingrich’s claim to the front-runner position . He’s madly trying to lower expectations by saying he’ll come in second or third, but after he led in the polls there and said that he’s already the designated nominee anything but a win will spark “Gingrich surge overrated?” headlines. He is also coming perilously close to becoming a clownish rather than presidential figure. If he gets the Cain endorsement, will it only raise eyebrows and cackles about his own infidelity? (Other campaigns told me late Saturday that they didn’t think a Cain endorsement meant much. In fact, you can bet someone or some political action committee will want to tie Cain and Gingrich at the hip.) In his eager acceptance of Donald Trump’s debate invitation, he also seems on the verge of looking more like a “celebrity” (his self-description when telling us he gets $60,000 per speech) than someone voters can imagine in the Oval Office.

For the next four weeks the entire field will be pounding away at his record, on everything from multiple marriages to his support for the individual mandate to his $500,000 Tiffany’s tab (the man has no self-restraint). He’s going to find it tough to live up to his own billing. For many Iowans (and voters around the country), Gingrich is not someone whose record and persona are thoroughly known. That’s about to change. Gingrich’s opponents, most especially Santorum, may be the beneficiaries if Gingrich’s familiarity (like that of Perry and Cain) breeds contempt. Given Gingrich’s enormous ego and lack of discipline that’s a real possibility.