Santorum defies expectations, makes his move

Rick Santorum is peaking at the right time. In the latest CNN poll Santorum is at 16 percent in Iowa, good enough for third place and ahead of former front-runner Newt Gingrich.

His senior adviser, Hogan Gidley, says, “There is a complete shift on the ground as people begin to take seriously” their decision. He points to the crowd size in Mason City, Iowa. Santorum’s first visit drew about 25 people. Gidley says this time he got 200.

In October, when Santorum was in single digits and had a hard time getting even conservative media outlets to pay attention to him, he told me, “At some point we knew voters would sit down, decide who they really want for president.” That time seems to have arrived.

Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, (who will not endorse in the caucuses) knows how Santorum did it: He earned it. Albrecht e-mails, “Rick Santorum has defined ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ Santorum has quietly traveled to all 99 counties, amassing significant support throughout the state. Rick Santorum has impressed Iowans while visiting with them in person, and Iowans have responded in kind by pledging their support.”

Albrecht is not exaggerating the amount of effort Santorum has put in. He’s held 357 town hall meetings, which last well over an hour each. From the get-go, Gidley tells me, Santorum put in place an early state strategy. In addition to Iowa, he’s been in New Hampshire consistently and made more than 25 trips to South Carolina. At times, Gidley confesses, Santorum had only a single person to introduce him around a town. He laughs: “It’s like golf. That one good shot keeps you coming back!”

And success breeds success. With larger crowds, more media coverage and movement in the polls, Gidley says,“Web traffic and donations have exploded.” Web traffic is up 300 percent. Gidley credits Shelley Ahlersmeyer, Mike Huckabee’s former grass-roots adviser, who came on recently with vastly improving Santorum’s Facebook and Twitter presence and setting in place a grass-roots operation that can turn out voters on caucus night.

Santorum’s case is simple: He’s the “consistent conservative,” or as Gidley likes to put it, “a full-spectrum conservative.” As Texas Gov. Rick Perry crumbled, Herman Cain washed out and Gingrich’s record and ethical lapses were scrutinized, Santorum has been able to collect the conservative voters who’ve fled from candidate to candidate.

Unlike Gingrich (whose attack on the courts has been panned) or Perry’s gimmick about a part-time Congress, Santorum has shied away from extravagant schemes. In his agenda on social issues he was careful to list items that he could accomplish by executive order from those requiring legislation or a constitutional amendment. Gidley says that’s reflective of Santorum’s insistence that he not “overpromise” voters. ”He respects the Constitution and the way it applies to the president,” he explains.

It is true that Santorum has been focusing on social issues, which count greatly with caucus-goers. Gidley says, “Iowans care greatly about families, life and marriage. But they also care greatly about a balanced budget. And they care greatly about defending Israel.”

Even Santorum’s critics agree he is good at drawing distinctions. The rest of the candidates and the media recently have tuned into Rep. Ron Paul’s bizarre views on Israel, 9/11 and Iran. But Santorum was the first candidate to confront Paul in the debates on Iran (as well as the 10th Amendment), and has done so consistently. It was also Santorum who effectively exposed and skewered Perry in a debate co-moderated by Google and Fox on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

Can Santorum really put all the pieces together to best much better-known and -funded candidates? A pollster for another campaign is confident Santorum will finish ahead of Gingrich. Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican agrees. He tells me, “I have no doubt that Santorum will beat Gingrich. In fact, I think he’s bound to get one of the three tickets out of Iowa. What is unknown is how much Santorum’s support will grow in the next five days.”

A strong finish for Santorum might be redemptive for Iowans and their caucuses as well. Iowa Republicans have taken heat as Paul seemed headed for victory, a prospect that might unleash disdain from the party and threaten their first-in-the-nation status. A launch for a Santorum candidacy, however, would vindicate Iowans' rationale for the state’s placement on the calendar: It is a small, relatively inexpensive state where a lesser-known candidate through sheer determination can gain national attention and media coverage. Santorum is hoping he’s that candidate.

If he does come in third Santorum will be dubbed the giant killer and go a long way toward ending the campaigns of Perry, Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann. In a race with many twists, that might be the strangest of all.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

opinions

Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read

opinions

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters