Rick Santorum is on a mission. The once darker-than-dark horse candidate for president has become the latest member of the GOP pack to rocket up in the polls, moving from single digits to a strong third place finish in the highly influential Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night.
Although the Register poll put Santorum nine points behind Mitt Romney, who had 24 percent support, it also showed Santorum’s share of the vote doubling over the four days that voters were surveyed, and bringing him to within one point of Romney on the final day. If he can stay on his upward trajectory, it has suddenly entered the realm of possibility that the former Pennsylvania senator could shoot past Rep. Ron Paul and Romney to win the Iowa caucuses, or place in the top three at the very least.
But unlike Romney, who is pitching himself to evangelicals as well as business-minded moderates, and Paul, whose libertarian streak has won him his own merry band of backers, Santorum has just one path to success—through a swath of tiny, but highly concentrated pockets of values voters in northwest Iowa, where Republicans won 88 percent of the vote in 2008 and Santorum must now consolidate the still fractured evangelical vote behind his campaign.
To that end, the Santorum campaign launched a final, frenzied push to win over as many of Iowa’s religious voters as possible on New Year’s weekend. Riding with family and friends in a bus emblazoned with “Faith, Freedom and Values,” the caravan stopped in towns like Indianola, Knoxville, Ottumwa, and Oskaloosa, where the devout Catholic and father of seven gave deeply religious remarks to overflow crowds of church-going people hungry to hear them.
“The Founders believed God gave us rights because we were formed in His image,” Santorum told a standing-room-only group in the basement of the Orange City bank Sunday night. “Do the work of freedom. Put on the cloak of a citizen. Go out and make a difference for your country.”
Beyond the language of the Founders, he also specifically said he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, abolish “Obamacare” and restore pro-life values to the White House. He also hit the president’s integrity hard, stopping just short of calling Obama a liar. “We have a president who is not concerned about the facts,” he said. “He doesn’t care. It’s not what is true, it is what he believes to be true.”
This trip and dozens of marathon journeys around Iowa like it in the last year seem to be paying off for Santorum. In addition to securing two last-minute endorsements from key evangelical elders—Bob Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader and Iowa campaign chairman of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, and Chuck Hurley, President of the Iowa Family Policy Center—voters who showed up at one of Santorum’s events as “undecided” declared that they would back the former senator in the end.
“I think he won my vote,” Randy Bartman said after the Orange City meeting. “He sounds like a strict constitutionalist. He stands up for the core values of this country.”
Randy and wife, Tina, said they had both wanted to vote for Herman Cain until he dropped out of the race in the fall. With just two days until the caucuses, they were both still deciding between Santourm and Texas governor Rick Perry. After Santorum’s remarks, both Bartmans said they would caucus for Santorum on Tuesday.
“It’s mostly just the way he stands on faith for the country and values for family and the way he feels about abortion,” Tina said. “He just sounds like he really cares about the country.”
Henrietta Dystra from Hull, Iowa praised his moral convictions. “I just appreciate his values. Those are our values.”
Mark Lundberg, the chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, a GOP stronghold that went 8 to 1 Republican in the last general election predicted Santorum would excell in the area on the support of late-deciding conservatives like him. “I am leaning toward Santorum,” said Lundberg, who added that he believes voters were looking for the best person to reflect their beliefs, who also had a realistic shot at becoming president.
“At some point you have to have a little pragmatic vote involved,” Lundberg said. “If you can’t get elected, you can’t get anything done.”