DES MOINES — Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has gone from afterthought to X Factor in the Republican presidential field during the closing days before Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses.
Through a combination of relentless campaigning, misfortune falling upon some of his GOP rivals, and a still-unsettled electorate, Santorum has risen from being a single-digit bottom-dweller to a third-place contender with aspirations of surprising front-runners Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on caucus night.
A new Des Moines Register Iowa poll dramatically illustrated Santorum's potential.
Romney led the survey, taken Tuesday through Friday, with 24 percent of likely caucus-goers. Paul was second at 22 percent, followed by Santorum at 15.
But results from Thursday and Friday showed a Santorum surge. Romney still led with 24 percent, but Santorum had vaulted into second at 21 percent, followed by Paul at 18.
But can the Santorum surge last? In this topsy-turvy campaign in which six candidates have taken turns at the top, nobody knows for sure. But the conservative ex-senator is clearly enjoying the new attention after spending most of the year stumping through the Hawkeye state in near obscurity.
"If we do well here we get on the national stage," Santorum told McClatchy Newspapers as he hosted an Iowa State-Rutgers University football game viewing party Friday at a restaurant in Ames, Iowa.
What a difference a bump in the polls makes. An NBC News/Marist College poll released Friday showed Santorum in third place at 15 percent among likely Republican caucus-goers, placing him behind Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, at 23 percent and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., at 21 percent.
Fifteen percent might not seem like a big number, but it's a long way up from the six percent Santorum registered in a similar Marist survey in early December.
More importantly, Santorum has clawed his way past former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whose numbers are fading under a barrage of negative attack ads, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's struggling to regain the confidence of caucus goers after his poor performances in televised debates.
"He's been slowly building a grassroots following," said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, a GOP newsletter. "He has the ability to challenge Ron Paul and Mitt Romney on caucus night. He's had quite a week. He's won the battle of the news cycle every night."
Robinson said Santorum's new status is a testament to his old-school campaign doggedness — he's held over 350 town hall meetings and visited all of Iowa's 99 counties at least once — and his appeal to Iowa's evangelical and Christian conservative Republicans, who've been shopping for a candidate to rally around. Gingrich's drop has also prompted some Iowans to give Santorum a second look.
"He getting that second wave, the splash created by the Gingrich collapse in the never-ending search by Republican conservatives for who's an acceptable conservative," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
There are no questions about Santorum's conservative credentials.
A devout Catholic and father of seven children, Santorum is fierce opponent of legalized abortion. He led the unsuccessful congressional GOP fight in 2005 to keep Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, attached to life-preserving medical equipment.
He opposes same-sex marriage and derided a 2003 Supreme Court decision that declared a Texas sodomy law unconstitutional. He said "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery."
Those positions have made Santorum popular among social conservatives and tea party supporters. He leads the Republican presidential field among evangelical Christians with 24 percent, according to the NBC/Marist survey. Perry is second at 21 percent.
He leads in tea party support with 20 percent, while Romney and Paul are tied at 17 percent. Twenty-three percent of Republican potential caucus-goers consider Santorum a true conservative, compared to 21 percent for Paul and only seven percent for Romney
While Santorum's numbers here are looking up, his electoral future remains uncertain. Only 53 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers are strongly committed to a candidate, according to the NBC/Marist poll, and several Iowans who say they personally like Santorum and his message question whether he's a viable candidate in a general election.
"I caucused for Romney four years ago. Maybe Santorum this time," said Al Scholes, a retired agribusiness man from Waukee. "He just has good moral values. But Romney is more experienced."
Like Scholes, Jeremy Wells caucused for Romney in 2008 and is weighing going with Santorum this time, although he's not certain.
"...I like Santorum," said Wells, a local Kaplan University president from Clive, Iowa. "He has conservative values. But Romney has more experience and is more electable."
Santorum insists that he would be a formidable general-election candidate. He reminds campaign audiences that he was elected to two Senate terms as a conservative Republican in what was then largely Democratic Pennsylvania.
"There are about a dozen states that will decide who the president is," Santorum said in Muscatine. "When I won in Pennsylvania, I got a ton of Reagan Democrats who supported me because I was someone they could trust."
Robinson said Santorum might suffer from another problem: Some potential caucus attendees perceive him as bland compared to some of the more colorful candidates.
"He'll never be a shiny red sports car," he said. "He's the family mini-van, steady and reliable, but not flashy."
And where he goes beyond Iowa is anybody's guess. A surprise first-place finish or a respectable second or third-place showing will be meaningless unless Santorum can quickly rack up a second win or solid performance next month in South Carolina or Florida, states heavy with the social conservative and evangelical voters that he appeals to most.
"There's nothing much in New Hampshire for him," Marist's Miringoff said. "He needs to dig his heels in in South Carolina. He needs to do it soon or he'll become the Iowa flash we've seen before."
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