Rick Santorum, surging in Iowa, a test for future of retail politics

GOP presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the center of media attention on Thursday at his 358th town hall, at the Coralville City Hall in Iowa, where his numbers are climbing. Santorum visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Associated Press

GOP presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the center of media attention on Thursday at his 358th town hall, at the Coralville City Hall in Iowa, where his numbers are climbing. Santorum visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Rick Santorum has spent more time campaigning for president in Iowa than any Republican, but he's like the annoying uncle at the annual holiday party, invited because he's family, not because he's funny or charismatic.

He has been an afterthought during nationally televised debates, whining for attention from his podium at the end of the stage, and at the bottom of polls.

But Thursday as he stepped into a restaurant on the bank of the Mississippi River, Santorum breathed in his sudden status, observing for a packed crowd all the "machines" in the back of the room, meaning TV cameras.

With days before Tuesday's caucuses, the first nominating contest in the country, Santorum is surging. A CNN poll this week showed him in third place, not far behind Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, his support tripling in a month. He'll need to finish at least in that range to continue.

"You've got perfect timing," a man who stood up at Button Factory Woodfire Grille said, a smile breaking across Santorum's face.

Santorum is the last guy on the bench. Social conservatives have embraced then discarded a string of anti-Romneys: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. The upside is, last may be best with time running out.

His rise is a test of the durability and legitimacy of retail politics, the face-to-face contact Iowans say make their state special. A top-three finish could underscore the value of the approach most candidates have abandoned in favor of national TV appearances, social media and campaign commercials.

A poor finish, however, would amplify arguments from states like Florida that want more say in picking presidential nominees. To many, Iowa is too small, rural and white to play such an important role, and the diminished contact with candidates makes it even more unremarkable.

So Santorum, 53, was imploring his audience Thursday to do its duty.

"Do not defer," he said. "Do what you are supposed to do, and that's lead."

The blur of campaign stops across Iowa this week is not indicative of how the candidates have approached the caucuses. There have been fewer extended visits than past elections.

One reason is the debates. There have been 13, giving candidates widespread exposure on cable news shows. Internet attack ads allow candidates to spread their messages faster and more aggressively.

"It's disappointing. There's just so many more outlets," lamented Chuck Laudner, a veteran Republican operative and Santorum supporter.

"We would be naïve if we didn't recognize that things are changing," said Bill Schickel, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. But he argued that it makes personal connections more important, not less.

"As a candidate, if I can get that face time in, that's pure gold," Schickel said.

Santorum, a two-term U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who lost his 2006 re-election bid, has been plying the state relentlessly. Thursday was his 358th town hall meeting. He has visited each of Iowa's 99 counties, portraying himself as a consistent conservative who can win in a swing state by appealing to independents and "Reagan Democrats."

Santorum advocated for a law ending partial-birth abortion and played a role in the 1996 welfare reform. When a young man supportive of gay marriage spoke up Thursday, Santorum, a father of seven, did not flinch to say he considers marriage to be between a man and a woman, drawing applause.

He said he did not consider it "inhumane," as Newt Gingrich recently suggested, to force illegal immigrants to return to their country, potentially splitting up families.

"This is heartland America, and the message he has is right along with what Iowans believe," said Keith Walton, 66, who attended the town hall.

Walton, who is undecided, may have been in another time a supporter of Perry, the Texas governor who espouses many of the same religious values as Santorum. But Perry, like others, has risen to the front of the pack then fallen amid media scrutiny and gaffes.

In a sign of Santorum's momentum, Perry released a radio ad Thursday attacking the former lawmaker for seeking budget earmarks. Santorum later told reporters he stands by the money returned to his state.

With a navy sweater vest over his button-down blue shirt, tan pleated pants and brown cowboy boots, Santorum does not carry the presence of Romney or possess the scrappiness of Bachmann.

And he's not like the last Republican to surprise Iowa — Mike Huckabee — who had a folksy likability to go with his conservative bonafides. Conservatives openly fret that Santorum would lack the resources to compete in other states. He's barely polling in New Hampshire.

Santorum is pitching himself as a strong contrast to President Barack Obama, and says the money and support will come with his rising visibility.

"We had this election choice the last time we were at such a critical point, back in 1980, where we had an economy that was chronically sick," Santorum said. "We can't afford a president who's going to be just a little better than the president who's in there right now."

Santorum left the room and hurried downstairs to do a live interview on Fox News, then spoke with MSNBC's Ed Schultz before turning to a gaggle of reporters he's not accustomed to seeing until now.

He was asked about what his campaign strategy says for the future of retail politics.

"If things turn out better for me than expected," he replied, "the people of Iowa will have done what the people of Iowa have always done, which is say, 'If you really want to do well here, you've got to come and have us measure you up and kick the tires.' "

Ramona Allenbaugh, 61, had a Santorum sticker on her jacket as she snapped photos at the town hall. She praised Santorum's qualifications and determination but confessed she had a different candidate in mind.

"I want somebody who will look for common ground, and I think Mitt Romney is that person," Allenbaugh said.

. Biography

Rick Santorum

Age: 53. Born in Winchester, Va.,

May 10, 1958.

Professional experience: Legislative staffer, Pennsylvania Senate, 1981-86; attorney; U.S. House of Representatives, 1991-1995; U.S. Senate, 1995-2007.

Family: Wife, Karen; children, Elizabeth, John, Daniel, Sarah Maria, Peter, Patrick, and Isabella.

Education: B.A., Pennsylvania State University 1980; M.B.A., University of Pittsburgh 1981; J.D., Dickinson School of Law 1986.

Religion: Catholic.

Sources: ricksantorum.com, congress.gov

Rick Santorum, surging in Iowa, a test for future of retail politics 12/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:15pm]

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