Rick Santorum's Miniature Iowa Moment

By Molly Ball

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.

Rather than tell people what they seemed to want to hear, Santorum made arguments in unexpected directions. To a questioner who decried congressional acrimony and gridlock and yearned for the days of Tip O'Neill-Bob Dole compromise, Santorum replied that Republicans had been too compromising in those days, and were now showing an admirable amount of spine. To one who brought up his history of seeking pork-barrel spending -- the subject of a Rick Perry attack ad at the moment -- Santorum vigorously defended earmarks as a means of taking spending power out of the hands of the executive bureaucracy, even as he allowed they've gotten out of hand and should probably be ended.

Santorum's pitch is strikingly joyless. He doesn't crack jokes, or at least not funny ones, and there are precious few sound bites woven into his lengthy, complex policy disquisitions. There's no spoonful of sugar in the medicine he's offering voters.

Yet perhaps that's appropriate for these closing moments, when Iowa voters are becoming deadly serious about the choice they must make in a few days. Despite the suffocating temperature and the length of the event, no one left the banquet room or nodded off while Santorum was speaking, and afterward, many said they were impressed by what they perceived as sincerity and intelligence.

Pam McCumber, a 49-year-old insurance worker from Kellogg, went up to Santorum after the event and informed him she'd be taking down the Perry sign in her yard and replacing it with a Santorum placard.

"You can just feel the faith in him. Everything comes right from his heart," she said. At a Perry event in Marshalltown the night before, she noted, the Texan had read many of his remarks from written notes, which put her off.

With Santorum, on the other hand, "I feel like he believes what he's saying," said McCumber, who supported Mike Huckabee four years ago.

Santorum's best-case scenario at this point is probably a respectable second place; he argues that anything in the top three will validate him to continue, provided he outpolls Perry and Michele Bachmann in the primary-within-a-primary for the social conservative vote.

After that, questions remain, such as whether he'll compete in New Hampshire -- probably a sucker bet, but one he seems inclined to take -- and whether his underfunded, Iowa-focused campaign has any juice anywhere else or whether he's destined, like Huckabee before him, to run out of fuel in short order.

But for now, Santorum gets to bask in his mini-moment. Asked if he was ever tempted to gloat about all the people who said he was going nowhere, he was gracious: "No," he said, "because they had a lot of basis to believe what they were believing, right?"

Image credit: Reuters/John Gress

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http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/rick-santorums-miniature-iowa-moment/250728/