County No. 88. There were 25 people waiting, and a few empty chairs.

“Just to tell you a little bit about myself, uh — I’m, uh — running for president of the United States,” Rick Santorum said. People laughed at the tentative way he said it. As if Santorum knew that this huge ambition did not belong in this room. “That’s the reason I’m here. I’m running for president. We brought free pizza.”

After a brief speech, Santorum took questions. The first one was about — animal breeding.

“There are a lot of activists in Iowa that are trying to prevent animal breeding. Like dog kennels. Cattle. Hogs. Chickens. Everything,” a woman said. She clearly disapproved of this. “If you were president of the United States, could you do anything about that?”

Santorum looked deflated. But the point of this event — like the 91 others before it — was that no place and nobody in Iowa was beneath his attention.

Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum campaigns in a Hardee’s restaurant in Esterville, Iowa, in August. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

So Santorum tried to think of a serious answer. What would President Santorum do to ensure that the farm animals of north-central Iowa could breed in peace?

“I guess the answer is that I would make sure — as president— that, uh, we allow businesses to operate in a legitimate fashion,” Santorum said, after he’d made clear that the First Amendment also protected the activists’ right to protest.

The second question was also about animal breeding.

Santorum had come to this out-of-the-way place because he was searching for something — his political magic — in the same way a man looks for his lost car keys.

He is retracing his steps.

In the last election, Santorum visited all 99 counties in Iowa and later won the state’s Republican caucuses. He was transformed from a long-shot ex-senator into a conservative hero who beat eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 11 states.

In this election, he’s a long shot again. Santorum has lost his theme song, his campaign guru, his big money and his niche in the GOP field. Even in Iowa, he was hovering around 1 percent in polls.

Santorum campaigns at an informal “town hall” style meeting in Garner, Iowa. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

But Santorum had a comeback strategy: Come back to Iowa. Visit all 99 counties again.

The task took him months this year. It could be exhausting, time-consuming and humiliating all at once. In Elkader (Clayton County, No. 74), fewer than 10 showed. In Hamlin (Audubon County, No. 25), it was four people. (“Go ahead,” he told one of them, after the man went on and on about biomass. “I’ve got plenty of time.”)

And in Carroll County, No. 26, the crowd he drew was — zero. In a moment captured on video by a Democratic “tracker,” Santorum looked around at a near-empty diner, saw no one to schmooze, and sat down alone to drink a chocolate milkshake.

The 99-county tour concluded last week on a good note for Santorum: He drew 150 people to a rally in Rock Rapids, in Lyon County, according to the Des Moines Register.

One day last month, when Santorum was still in the middle of his quest, he had a plan for a long day of driving through cornfields to hit Counties 87 through 90.

The old miracle must be out there. This was exactly where he left it.

“People ask me all the time, you know: ‘How are you going to win? How are you going to do this?’ ” Santorum said at the day’s first stop, at a Hardee’s in Estherville, in Emmet County.

“I remind people that two weeks before the Iowa caucuses last time, I was at 2 percent in the national polls,” he said. “The idea that national polls have anything to do with how people in Iowa vote — thanks be to God, the answer is it doesn’t.”

At the Hardee’s, Santorum gave the stump speech that has defined this campaign. It is as dark as spilled ink — less a speech, really, than a list of disasters, all bearing down on us at once.

President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, he said, could give that country a nuclear bomb (“The greatest betrayal of the security of our country in our history”). An electromagnetic pulse weapon could blast the United States into helplessness and chaos (“Up to 90 percent fatalities, within a year”). Immigrants would drive down wages. Same-sex marriage could erode the family. Christians could be shouted down for stating their beliefs.

Then, after all that gloom: “I’m going to ask each and every one of you for your vote. Iowa has an opportunity to do something great.”

The 22 people at Hardee’s got up.

Left.

Kept their options open.

“He’d make a good president,” said R.N. Lepird, a retired foot-and-ankle surgeon. But, he said, “I don’t think he’ll make it.”

The irony in this situation is that Santorum — or at least the 2012 version of Santorum — is conservatism’s patron saint of lost causes. All the long shots in this race think they have absorbed his lessons: work hard, shake hands, bash the establishment and wait for the flood of voters to lift you up. Other long shots, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas governor Rick Perry, have also pledged to reach all 99 counties.

But this time, even Santorum doesn’t appear able to pull a Santorum.

That was clear, months ago, to the Iowa campaign guru who drove Santorum to all those counties last time.

“If it’s October 2011, how does Chuck Laudner give it sideways into the establishment?” Laudner asked in an interview this summer. “[By working for] Herman Cain? Michele Bachmann? Nah. Rick Santorum was the guy who was going to beat Mitt Romney” in Iowa.

“Now if it’s January of 2015,” Laudner said. “Who is going to beat the establishment? Rick Santorum?” His answer was no.

Laudner now works for Donald Trump. The way to beat the establishment, he had decided, was to give up on small crowds and small rooms. “I bet we can outnumber those sons of bitches,” Laudner said.

But Santorum still believes that he has a path, and that the path goes through little places like these. In small meetings in Iowa, he thinks, he’ll win over hard-core supporters, who will win over their neighbors. Then he wins Iowa. Then that victory boosts him into the next few states.

“We feel really good about South Carolina,” to name one, Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon said.

He noted that Santorum’s brother lives there. But, in one recent poll of 509 South Carolina Republicans, Santorum got one. Not one percent. One person. (The good news was that the pollster checked, and it was not his brother.)

Back in Iowa, Santorum left Estherville for Forest City, 69 miles away. Winnebago County. There, Santorum spoke at a nonprofit focused on people with intellectual disabilities.

That put No. 88 in the books.

Or maybe not.

When a Post reporter checked a few days later, it turned out Santorum’s event had actually been a few hundred yards over the line in the wrong county. Santorum’s campaign called back, with a solution. It turned out that Santorum had also talked to a few people in the right county, in the restaurant where he had picked up that pizza.

Did that satisfy The Post? If not, a Santorum spokesman said, “he’ll run up there tomorrow and do a retail stop in the county. It will take him 2.5 hours out of his way.”

If they’re satisfied, we’re satisfied. No. 88 it was.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.