Iowans heard the last debate last night, but they will be bombarded with direct mail, TV ads and earned media for the next few weeks. Rick Santorum, despite the ranking in the polls, is certainly getting his message out.

Politico reports: “A Super PAC backing Rick Santorum is spending some real money — $200,000 — to boost the hardest working man in lesser candidacy, making the straightforward case to conservatives that he’s the one they can trust.” His campaign is dropping a ton of direct mail, hyping nice comments made about him by Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

Anecdotal evidence has also been positive. Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican e-mailed me about a Santorum event Wednesday night in Holstein: “I think he is now convinced that all of his hard work in Iowa is about to pay off. It might not show up in the polls, but I think it will be there on caucus day. By the way, at 2:30 in the afternoon 35 to 40 people showed up to see him. That’s a good crowd in a town of 1400. I don’t think any other candidates have been to Holstein either.” If you put together a lot of small towns, the numbers do add up. Moreover, Santorum generally helps himself at these appearances. “The response to him was good. People signed up and one couple brought a check. Another couple that I saw at a Rick Perry event the night before in Denison stopped to tell me that Santorum was their candidate. Last night they were deciding between [Rep. Michele] Bachmann, Perry and Santorum.”

In Iowa, Santorum continues to get respectful, even affectionate coverage (perhaps because he has spent so much time there). Radio Iowa reported this week: “Rick Santorum reached the milestone of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties in November, and he’s making return trips now — by car and minivan, rather than bus. Chuck Laudner, a Santorum backer, has been involved in many Iowa campaigns. Laudner suggests Santorum is a bit like the underestimated quarterback of the Denver Broncos who has led the team to a string of surprising victories. ‘They’re watching the Tim Tebow of the Republican process out there, working all the way through the 4th quarter,’ Laudner told Radio Iowa.”

A state party operative calls Santorum’s ground game “real, but it’s quiet.” He pegs Santorum’s support in the “low to mid-teens.” Well, if that is the case he could move up into the top few spots, becoming the “surprise” story that really wasn’t a surprise.

The good news for Santorum is that, unlike Newt Gingrich in Iowa or Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, he doesn’t have to win to “win.” If he tops other contenders and gets close to the front-runners there’s every reason to think he can continue on, aiming for a strong showing in South Carolina.