Rick Santorum is still a bit player in the Republican presidential race, and if he’s going to make a move, this week offers him a great chance.

Thursday will bring the first Iowa debate, and Saturday is the Ames straw poll, which many see as the first time important votes are cast in the presidential race.

A well-spoken and confrontational candidate, the former Pennsylvania senator performs well in debates, and his campaign’s focus on winning social conservatives to his cause is almost tailor-made for a straw poll — which tends to draw only the most motivated voters — in socially conservative Iowa.

Santorum says he will beat expectations in the straw poll, in which nine candidates are taking part. He adds that he could even break into the top four.

“Three or four tickets get punched out of Iowa,” Santorum said. “If we finish in the top five, we can show folks we’ll be in range of being in that top three or four.”

Yet both of the major public polls in the state show him in a distant seventh place. And expectations for his Saturday result remain low, even as Santorum’s supporters say he needs a shot in the arm.

“I wouldn’t be optimistic,” said Pennsylvania Republican consultant William J. Green, a Santorum supporter. “He’s got to show some life in this process. There’s got to be a heartbeat here.”

Former congressional candidate Ben Lange, who has endorsed Santorum and was traveling with him Tuesday, said the potential is there for a top-three finish.

“Once they’ve heard him speak, you see . . . 30 to 45 percent of the people in the room saying, ‘I’m not sure who I was voting for, but I’ll come with you on the bus to the Ames straw poll,’ ” Lange said.

Santorum is banking on his staunch conservative credentials and 12 years of experience as a senator to set him apart. He has also spent lots of time in two other early states — New Hampshire and South Carolina — but Green and others acknowledge that socially conservative Iowa should be the former senator’s bread and butter.

As such, Santorum has taken the unusual step of moving his family to Iowa and dispatching them to the campaign trail. He has spent more time traversing the state than any other candidate.

In the run-up to the straw poll, he has announced that he will distribute homemade peach preserves and host a “Santorum Summer Dance Party” featuring the late Buddy Holly’s backup band, the Crickets, and the Big Bopper Jr. — two musical acts that recall the 1959 plane crash in Iowa that killed Holly, J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens.

Gimmicks aside, Santorum could have an opening this weekend, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney not competing in the straw poll and Texas Gov. Rick Perry not on the ballot (he isn’t officially a candidate yet).

Generally, candidates who finish near the bottom of the Ames poll drop out soon afterward, as donors begin to doubt they can win the nomination and stop contributing.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and an entrance by Perry “will make it close to impossible for Santorum to raise the necessary funds to carry on and mount more than a token campaign,” said GOP strategist Scott Reed.

Santorum, despite raising tens of millions of dollars for his failed 2006 Senate reelection campaign, managed to pull together less than $600,000 in the second quarter. The total was less than one-third as much as any candidate on the Ames straw poll ballot except one — Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), who didn’t announce his candidacy until after the quarter ended.

Bachmann, in particular, appears to have wooed away many of the voters that Santorum was seeking. Like Santorum, Bachmann has been a favorite of social conservatives but also does well with fiscal conservatives.

Observers see Perry fitting very much the same mold and causing Santorum even more problems.

But even if Santorum’s campaign becomes little more than a token bid, many say they expect him to press on.

He has long been a firebrand in the Republican Party, at times even causing rifts. Those who have watched his career say he may be content to be a presence at debates and steer the direction of the conversation — even if victory seems all but impossible.

“He has neither profile nor money nor a professional organization that allows him to stay past the early [states], but he can stay in and be part of the process for some time,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

In an interview, Santorum wouldn’t commit to staying in the race through the early primaries and caucuses, saying only that he thinks he will be in contention.

But he says he’ll keep running only if he can see victory ahead, citing the strains of campaigning on his family.

“I’m going to be in this race if we can win,” he said. “If people don’t think you can win, then you really don’t add anything to the conversation.”