Rick Santorum's Miniature Iowa Moment

After months of grinding it out, the former Pennsylvania senator gets a tiny taste of vindication for his Iowa-based campaign.

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MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA -- In a stifling room filled with inquisitive Iowans, Rick Santorum was being Rick Santorum: plodding, long-winded and achingly sincere. The Iowans seemed to like it.

It was, he noted, his 361st campaign event in the state. "All year -- except for the last 5 days -- I got the same question: Why are you still doing this?" he said, noting pointedly that he was the only one to grind it out in this dutiful manner. "And I said it's because I want to earn the votes of Iowans."

What had changed in the last five days was evident from Santorum's surroundings.

No less than 11 television cameras were arrayed on the edges of the room. Reporters and still photographers squeezed into corners and aisles. On television screens above Santorum as he spoke, C-SPAN's live feed of him speaking played on a slight delay, in a strange visual echo. Outside the banquet room, which held about 100 people, dozens more in the sports bar-restaurant watched the C-SPAN feed on screens tuned away from a big football game.

Yes, people are finally paying attention to Rick Santorum. Sort of. A little.

His miniature surge in support shouldn't be overstated: He has not roared into first with a 20-point lead. Rather, a couple of polls have shown a modest but significant uptick in support for Santorum in Iowa, nudging him into double digits and a nominal third place. (It's really more like a tie with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.)

But Santorum appears to have a wind at his back in these last few days before Tuesday's caucuses, and with over 1,000 members of the media having descended on the state for the home stretch, that's enough to get him the full spotlight treatment.

Earlier Friday, Santorum visited a Buffalo Wild Wings in Ames, the home of Iowa State University, to take in part of that school's big bowl game against Rutgers. For the old, unattended Santorum, this might have been a nice gesture, showing his understanding of what's dear to Iowans' hearts. (Later, he also took in the University of Iowa bowl game -- it would have been a grave faux pas to favor one institution over the other.)

Instead, the mob of cameras that trailed Santorum into the establishment clogged the aisles and interfered with patrons' game-watching, drawing complaints and ill will. You could count the number of potential GOP caucus-goers on two hands.

In Marshalltown, however, the crowd was actually there to see Santorum. In his 20-minute speech, he emphasized the importance of family values, his signature cause, and made a case for his electability, saying he could appeal to Rust Belt swing voters.

Santorum then took questions for more than an hour, displaying a former senator's zeal for technical, filibuster-worthy explanations. A young man's question about national service programs drew a four-minute explanation of Santorum's opposition to them even though he'd once worked to reform Americorps, for example.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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