Santorum who? Republican candidate gets timely poll surge

MASON CIY, Iowa Wed Dec 28, 2011 8:14pm EST

1 of 3. U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (L) talks to reporters after pheasant hunting in Adel, Iowa December 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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MASON CIY, Iowa (Reuters) - Rick Santorum may be getting his shot at the spotlight -- in the nick of time.

Struggling for months to gain traction in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Pennsylvania senator has moved into third place in Iowa, according to a new poll commissioned by CNN and Time magazine.

It couldn't come at a better moment for Santorum. The social conservative, who has languished in most opinion polls, could use the momentum from a surge to sustain his campaign after January 3, when Iowans choose their nominee.

That would be the latest twist in a nominating contest that has been punctuated by a rotation of "in" candidates seen as an alternative to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, around whom social conservatives have failed to coalesce.

Pizza executive Herman Cain, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann have each had rises and falls, respectively.

But Santorum has stayed consistently low in the polls, until now.

"We've always felt we could trust the people of Iowa, that when they got down to the time they were going to look at all the candidates and measure up to people they've had the opportunity to see, that they would do well," Santorum said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.

Romney came in first place in the poll, ahead of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who came in second.

Santorum earned the support of 16 percent of Iowa voters surveyed by the news organizations, compared to 25 percent for Romney.

Santorum has virtually moved to Iowa, concentrating his hopes on the state's social conservatives who share his strict opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

He has visited all 99 of Iowa's counties and courted every leading religious group in the state, campaigning regularly in the diners, town halls and community centers that are so crucial to the type of personal contact that Iowa voters demand.

Success in Iowa may not mean he has a pathway to the Republican nomination, however, even if he becomes the latest Romney alternative.

"Santorum is benefiting from all of his quality time in the state," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "However, any placement will be hard to sustain in other states where he lacks presence, organization and resources."

Santorum has polled consistently around 3 percent nationally and between 5 percent and 10 percent in Iowa. (additional reporting by Sam Youngman and Samuel P. Jacobs)

(Reporting By Jeff Mason; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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