Victory!

01.03.12

Santorum Wins Big Just by Exceeding Campaign Expectations in Iowa

Even before his dramatic duel with the former governor was settled, Santorum had won a victory by giving the frontrunner such a close fight—and becoming the GOP’s latest anti-Romney candidate.

Rick Santorum had sky-high expectations to meet in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, and by the narrowest of margins, he seemed poised to exceed them with nearly all the votes counted and just a handful separating him and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

“Game on!” Santorum said to the hundreds of people at his victory party in the Stoney Creek Inn in Johnston, Iowa.

An emotional Santorum thanked his wife, Karen, God, and the people of Iowa for bringing him through the yearlong saga of the Iowa campaign. “To the people of Iowa, by standing up and being bold and leading, you have taken the first step of taking back this country.”

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Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader group and a key evangelical spokesman in Iowa, said a “perfect storm” of Santorum’s grassroots work, his down-to-earth personality, and a series of recent endorsements from pastors around the state distinguished him from other conservatives in the race like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich.

“Rick Santorum worked exceptionally hard,” Vander Plaats said, describing Santorum’s quixotic yearlong tour across Iowa’s 99 counties in a borrowed pickup truck.  “And when people met him, they liked him.”

One of the people who liked him was Jeanne Jennings of Johnston, who caucused for Santorum on Tuesday night. “I just think he’s got a lot of good ideas,” she said. “I like the fact that he’s seriously a Christian and a strong family man.”

In the end, Santorum’s value-first message played better in Iowa than Romney’s pitch as a business- turnaround man.

In the end, Santorum’s value-first message played better in Iowa than Romney’s pitch as a business-turnaround man. In all the ways that Iowa is an anomaly from the rest of the country, none may be as important this year as the state’s roaring economy, which is being powered by high commodity prices amid record demand from Asia.  With Iowa having a statewide unemployment rate of 6 percent, 50 percent lower than the national average, Republican residents said they are not solely focused on jobs and the economy.

“All these other guys are talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, like that’s going to solve all the problems of the country,” said Bill Yewell of Ogden.  “Santorum is saying let’s straighten out these social issues, and the economy will come around.”

Tracy Sheets from West Des Moines was in the audience at Santorum’s victory party and called him “the full package as a conservative.”

“He’s a fiscal conservative, a constitutional conservative, social conservative, and he’s so strong on foreign policy,” Sheets said. “Long before anybody was talking about Iran, he was putting legislation in on it.”

With Santorum now the latest alternative candidate to Mitt Romney for GOP voters, evangelicals around the country have a decision to make—whether they will continue to split their votes among Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann, or whether they will coalesce around one socially conservative candidate.

Vander Plaats said it’s time for religious voters to come home.  “We need to be smart here to get a pro-family conservative to go up against Mitt Romney.”

Vander Plaats added that just as Perry has decided to return to Texas to “reassess” his future in the race, Newt Gingrich should do the same.

Gingrich gave a hint about whom he might support in the future if he were to follow Perry’s lead and consider leaving the race when he congratulated Santorum in a speech after the caucuses.

“I admire the courage, the discipline, the focus, and the positive way he went about it,” Gingrich said of Santorum. “I wish I could say the same thing about all of the candidates.”

With 97 percent of the votes counted just before midnight and the margin between him and Romney still too close to call, Santorum ended his speech knowing the vote totals would not matter as much as the victory he already had won by defying expectations and giving Romney a run for his considerable money.

“It’s been a great journey,” Santorum said to his supporters. “And, with the three words I always hear in this state, ‘Welcome to Iowa.’”