UNDERDOG

12.30.11

As Newt Gingrich Fades, Rick Santorum Surges Ahead in Iowa

With Newt Gingrich fading in the polls and Ron Paul fighting off his past controversies, Rick Santorum has the momentum as the latest alternative to Mitt Romney. Patricia Murphy and Lloyd Grove report from Iowa on Santorum’s surge—and whether he can keep it up for next week’s caucus.

Davenport, Iowa—Nothing says you’ve arrived in politics like a radio ad attacking your integrity.  For Rick Santorum, his moment came in Iowa on Thursday when Texas Gov. Rick Perry released an ad hammering him as a “prolific earmarker” in the Senate before losing his Pennsylvania seat in a rout.

Perry’s attentions, along with a Time/CNN poll showing Santorum surging 11 points in Iowa since the beginning of the month, have rubbed together like the paddles of life to jolt Santorum’s once-slumbering presidential ambitions into real, live heartbeat territory.

After a full year of campaigning here with only single-digit poll numbers to show for it, the former Pennsylvania senator finally looks and sounds like a man on the verge of victory in the race for the much-contested, anyone-but-Mitt-Romney primary among the Republican faithful.

Of GOP primary and caucus voters, nearly 80 percent say they are still looking for an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor—including in Iowa, where the caucuses are just four days away.  With Newt Gingrich fading, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann stumbling, and Ron Paul mired in a mid-’90s newsletter controversy, conservatives in Iowa seem to be waking up and realizing that the anti-Romney they’ve been pining for may have been in their midst all along.

“I hear it every day,” said Santorum, outside of the Button Factory restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa, talking about his tortoise-to-hare conversion in the polls. “When I have these town-hall meetings, people say, ‘I didn’t know about you. Where have you been?’”

Specifically, Santorum has been stumping in all 99 counties in Iowa, many several times over, including three town halls on Thursday alone. The Muscatine lunchtime meet-and-greet, along with an evening town hall at a Davenport senior center, marked his 358th and 359th events in the state this year and evidenced an all-in strategy that Romney has assiduously avoided until the last days of the Iowa campaign.

Both physically and stylistically, Santorum embodies the anti-Romney. While Romney is imperially slim and sleekly attired (often in pressed jeans and a dress shirt), Santorum carries a notable paunch, which he often covers in a wooly sweater vest.  Romney’s events can resemble corporate off-site meetings, while Santorum packs his people into coffee shops and senior centers, with no microphones set up and no schedule more important than a few more questions from the audience.

Like all the other not-Romneys who have enjoyed boomlets so far, the question of electability hovers over Santorum’s campaign, but he insists that Romney is the one who can’t win. “Mitt Romney has never won as a conservative. Ever.”

Romney keeps his contacts with the hoi-polloi crisp and to the point—efficiently presenting two-minute answers to questions at highly produced town meetings—but Santorum can spend 10 or 15 minutes responding to a voter’s question, frequently using whatever query as a jumping-off point for one of his trademark perorations.

At Thursday night’s town meeting in Davenport, Santorum took the opportunity of a question about how he’d cut the budget as president to favor the crowd with a disquisition on the history of Medicaid.

Directly and indirectly, Santorum uses his events to contrast himself with Romney, from highlighting his distinctly un-Romney-esque lineage as the grandson of a coal miner and son of an Italian immigrant to his unusual willingness to give voters answers to questions they might not want to hear.  “Polls change, but convictions shouldn’t,” he told the Davenport crowd, to a loud round of applause.

It is the area of convictions where Santorum is pushing the hardest to demonstrate to Iowans that he— and not Romney— is the true conservative in the race. On issue after issue, the devout Catholic takes a right-of-right of center view that those who go to his events say rings true: From abortion (“I don’t believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception”) to the Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas is his favorite justice) to education (“No Child Left Behind will be gone in my administration”) to faith, calling the American ideal “the responsibility to do God’s will.”

Like all the other not-Romneys who have enjoyed boomlets so far, the question of electability hovers over Santorum’s campaign, but he insists that Romney is the one who can’t win. “Mitt Romney has never won as a conservative. Ever.”

And quite unlike the other non-Romneys (with the exception of the surging Ron Paul), Santorum has an actual campaign infrastructure, complete with 11 paid staff and nearly 1,000 volunteers, to deliver a strong showing on caucus night. “I’m not on a book tour. I’m actually running for president,” he says.

Santorum’s push now is for the 45 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers who still say they still haven’t undecided who they’ll support next Tuesday. If his performance this week is any indication, he could have a good night. “Iowans take their time making their decision and that’s what I think was going on,” he told the Daily Beast. “A lot of people are coming up to me saying, ‘I was undecided, but you’ve got my vote,’ and that’s the process people are going through right now.”

One Iowan going through it was Davenport resident Linda Langrock, a 64-year-old grandmother and retired chemical factory worker. Before Santorum took the microphone at the Scott County town hall event, she was deciding among Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney, whom she called, “a believer and a very sharp, good businessman.”

By the time Santorum’s two-hour event was over, he had nearly won her over. “I was impressed,” she said. “He seemed like a real straight shooter. As far as between him and Mitt, I think Mitt seemed a little bit rehearsed. But Rick seemed to be speaking from the heart.”