Santorum off and running with fourth-place straw-poll finish

Posted: August 21, 2011

As you read your Sunday paper, Rick Santorum is scheduled to be crisscrossing New Hampshire. He's headed for a clambake in Rumney, a Greek festival in Manchester, and a meeting at Center Harbor in an old church called Our Lady of Victory.

It's a wonder what finishing fourth can do for a man.

Not so long ago, the former Pennsylvania senator was being dismissed as an asterisk in the Republican presidential race, a candidate who had to raise his hand and shame moderators into calling on him during a nationally televised debate.

Two days later, the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, changed all that. Santorum had no trouble getting noticed as he visited the networks' encampments on the floor of the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University for a series of interviews. He had finished a strong fourth Aug. 13 with 1,657 votes (a shade below 10 percent) in an early test of Republican candidates' organizing strength.

In the calculus of expectations vs. results, it was enough to crack open the door a couple of inches for Santorum, giving his cash-poor campaign a chance to fight into the fall and survive until the Feb. 6 Iowa caucuses, the first real votes in the GOP nominating contest.

"I have no delusions that I'm going to start to show up in national polls and get a lot of media attention. But the activists are paying attention," Santorum told The Inquirer.

"We're running a motor-scooter campaign, not a jet campaign. We've got a small gas can. We're going to fill it up and keep chugging along."

Santorum's advisers report an uptick in small donations and volunteers, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. Along with his busy Sunday itinerary in New Hampshire, he said, he was organizing a series of fund-raisers for the next two weeks in Pennsylvania, where he has a financial base after 12 years in the U.S. Senate and four in the House.

"Live off the land" is how Santorum describes his strategy: Hang in as long as possible against better-funded opponents; score points in debates; do well in Iowa and in South Carolina's primary, where social conservatives dominate the GOP electorate; and try not to get wrecked in New Hampshire in between.

To be sure, he is still rated a long shot, even by admirers. "Rick's in a good spot now to shape the debate," said a Washington Republican who supports Santorum and gives him informal advice.

GOP strategists say Santorum will be able to continue as long as he has respectable fund-raising numbers on the next federal report, due in October.

He will need to play catch-up. As of June 30, the end of the last reporting period, he had raised $592,808. By contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reported $18.3 million and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota $4.3 million.

Said the Santorum adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "He's got to show that people are buying the dream."

Santorum has been positioning himself against the three candidates who polls suggest lead the GOP contest. Conservatives need "leadership, not showmanship," to advance their causes, Santorum said in the Ames debate - a barb at the Iowa front-runner, Bachmann.

He argues that unlike Bachmann, he has accomplished "big things" as a lawmaker, helping enact changes to welfare and a federal ban on a form of late-term abortion. And Santorum criticizes Texas Gov. Rick Perry's emphasis on the 10th Amendment, which reserves some autonomy to the states, saying states don't have the right to violate the Constitution or the "fundamental moral values" of the nation to, for instance, legalize same-sex marriage.

Santorum was also the first candidate to condemn Perry when the Texan said it would be "treasonous" for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to approve policies that increased the money supply and kept interest rates low.

The Ames straw poll may be a peculiar institution - campaigns pay for voters' tickets to the fund-raiser for the state GOP - but the event was do-or-die for Santorum.

With no money even to send direct-mail advertising to Iowa Republicans, Santorum moved his family to the state 18 days before the straw poll. Together, they campaigned through 68 of the 99 Iowa counties, visiting living rooms, coffee shops, and libraries in the little places that other candidates skipped in favor of the vote-rich suburbs and exurbs of Des Moines, with their mega-churches and upscale shops.

The Santorums went to towns such as Roland, Orange City, Harlan, Muscatine, Cherokee, Strawberry Point, and Rock Rapids, a town far in Iowa's northwest corner, which later sent a bus filled with 60 supporters on the four-hour ride to Ames.

"The little rural counties nobody pays attention to can have a big impact on the caucuses," Santorum said. "We're building an organization there for the caucuses."

In those caucuses, voters turn out at hundreds of locations in the counties, and a strong grassroots organization is required to maximize supporters. Santorum's Iowa aides believe he can do well in conservative northwest Iowa and attract independents and socially conservative Democrats - who can change their registration to participate in the caucuses - in heavily Catholic eastern Iowa, with cities such as Davenport, Bettendorf, and Dubuque.

The candidate said his strategy rested on doing well in Iowa, surviving the more moderate New Hampshire primary, then surging in the first Southern primary, in South Carolina.

Santorum beat his first foe, expectations, in Ames. But getting deep into the process could be difficult for him, analysts say.

"There is room for Santorum to grow, but there's room for all of them," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "His niche is a strong pro-life, pro-family candidate, but it's difficult to see how that differentiates him from almost any Republican who's running."

Running a low-budget campaign with a passionate message "can sustain him for a while," Goldford said. "But at a certain point he is going to have to break through or drop out."


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at philly.com/bigtent

 

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