Struggling Santorum bets big on Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:49pm EST

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DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Rick Santorum thought he had it figured out.

He would use a game plan much like the one conservative Mike Huckabee employed in 2008 to win the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. president.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania known for his staunch opposition to abortion, criticism of homosexuality and questioning of the teaching of evolution in schools, has gone straight for Iowa's social conservatives.

He has visited all 99 of Iowa's counties and courted every leading religious group in the state. He has campaigned from sunrise to sundown in the diners, town halls and community centers that are so crucial to the type of personal contact that Iowa voters have responded to for generations.

And in staking his campaign on Iowa, Santorum, 53, has virtually moved here, becoming as much of an Iowa mainstay as fried food and frigid temperatures.

So far, it hasn't quite worked.

Santorum is running no better than a distant fourth among Republicans in Iowa polls, with most surveys measuring his support in single digits.

In a turbulent race that has been largely defined by conservative Republicans' search for an alternative to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, several conservative candidates have had their moments atop the polls. Santorum hasn't been one of them.

He has focused on using a traditional, door-to-door strategy in a new type of campaign, in which nationally televised debates and frequent appearances on cable TV talk shows have helped to fuel the candidacies of Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Also running strong in Iowa is Texas congressman Ron Paul, whose libertarian platform stands out among Republican candidates. Paul - who has developed a loyal, enthusiastic following in Iowa with a campaign whose strategy more closely resembles Santorum's - generally opposes U.S. intervention in other nations' affairs, is against any tax increases and wants to eliminate many federal agencies.

Polls show Paul, Gingrich and Romney as the leading contenders in the Iowa caucuses, to be held January 3. Gingrich appears to be fading after a month in which he was the most recent Republican candidate to rocket up the polls as The Great Conservative Hope.

But even if the top three stumble, it's questionable whether Santorum will be in position to take advantage.

Santorum's problem in nailing down support is evident in the voices of voters such as Nick Chambers, assistant director of the Principal Financial Group.

After a recent Santorum campaign appearance in Des Moines, Chambers said he still was undecided, but that he planned to caucus for either Romney, Gingrich or Santorum.

"I completely agree with his viewpoints," Chambers said of Santorum, adding he was at a loss to explain why Santorum isn't doing better in the polls.

"Maybe it's because people perceive him as unelectable," Chamber said. "Maybe because people perceive him as looking too damn young."

FOLLOWING HUCKABEE'S MODEL

In 2008, former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee came from back in the pack to win the caucuses here by courting evangelical Christians and devoting significant campaigning time to Iowa.

Huckabee won the caucuses with 34 percent of the vote, 9 percentage points more than Romney, who finished second. The eventual Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, finished fourth.

Santorum, borrowing Huckabee's strategy, has polled consistently around 3 percent nationally and between 5 and 10 percent in Iowa.

"There's no doubt that the fact that this race has been a national conversation, it hurts a guy like Santorum," said Craig Robinson, former political director for the Iowa state Republican Party and the man behind the website theiowarepublican.com.

If Santorum were running the same race in 2008, Robinson said, the former senator could well have been that year's Huckabee, surprising better-funded candidates behind the strength of the state's powerful evangelical Christian vote.

However, Santorum is splitting such support with another socially conservative candidate, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann.

They are confronted with the national campaigns of Gingrich and Romney, the Tea Party-powered campaign being run by Paul, and the well-funded effort by Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose gaffes in debates have kept his poll numbers down.

Last week, as Gingrich and Romney were slugging it out in New Hampshire in advance of that state's primary on January 10, Santorum wrapped up a sparsely attended speech in Des Moines by pleading for support.

The rest of the field, Santorum said, "they say they need your help - they're lying.

"I need your help," he said, lamenting his lack of national heft. "I'm just counting on Iowa."

NOT A STAR AT DEBATES

Santorum and his staff insist that he is coming on strong, but he seems to acknowledge that the type of campaign he prefers is better suited for a bygone era.

During the question and answer session after a speech in which Santorum blasted President Barack Obama, Romney and the federal court system, few in the audience were eager to ask a question.

When they did, Santorum would go on at length, veering far from the original question.

"I always say politicians talk in four-second sound bites. I talk in four-minute sound bites," Santorum said. "That's why I don't do quite as well at these debates I guess."

After the event, a small group of reporters gathered near Santorum, asking questions about when he might drop out of the race.

The former senator noted that other candidates have been where he is.

"A month ago, Newt was at 7 or 8 (percent) in the polls," Santorum said. "My time will come."

Santorum and his staff maintain that despite their campaign's difficulties, there still is a chance that Santorum will make surprisingly strong showing on January 3 that could propel him to success in other states.

"People say, 'When are you going to get your bump?'" Santorum said. "I say January 3."

Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Santorum, said the crowds at Santorum events in Iowa have tripled during the last month, and the campaign is signing up about 70 percent to 80 percent of the Iowans who come to hear Santorum speak as supporters.

While the front-runners are dividing their time among Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, Santorum is staying in Iowa, taking a break only on Christmas weekend.

"I've been to most of these counties twice now," Santorum said, boasting that he can play "Iowa trivia" with anyone.

Robinson said that Santorum's on-the-ground efforts don't make for "a strategy that helps you shoot up in the polls - it's more of a strategy for caucus night."

"This contest has been crazy and volatile, and I'm not writing anybody off, especially the guy who's spent the most time here," Robinson said. "Social conservatives are searching for the next Mike Huckabee. I think the closest thing to it is Santorum."

(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech)

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Comments (1)
Adam_S wrote:
This guy is a caricature of himself. A living caricature. And while he’s obviously not going to get the nomination, the mere presence of he and Bachmania on the debate stage has served to push the opinions of all candidates a little further to the right, socially. So, congrats are due, I guess, to the evil genius.

Dec 19, 2011 4:53pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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