A great night for Santorum, but . . .

His Iowa showing capped an amazing run, but big hurdles are ahead as the battle moves on.

Posted: January 04, 2012

DES MOINES, Iowa - Was it a three-way tie, a photo finish or a flat-out win for the redoubtable Rick Santorum?

However the final Iowa caucus numbers read, the former Pennsylvania senator's showing far exceeded what many of his top staffers, jubilant at the Stony Creek Inn here Tuesday night, could have dreamed of six years before.

That was when Santorum had lost his Senate seat by 18 percentage points to Democrat Bob Casey. Fast-forward to the Stony Creek Inn, where those same loyalists had cause to celebrate after months of struggling in rural Iowa just to gain attention.

"If someone would have come to us in 2006 and said in 2012 you would be leading in the first caucus, no one would have believed them," said senior strategist John Brabender, as results trickled in showing Santorum poised to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney - even leading the former Massachusetts governor by a handful of votes.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul was third.

The tally appeared to cement the so-called surge that catapulted Santorum from single-digit poll numbers to standing-room-only appearances in the race's final days. It also marked Santorum as the winner, at least temporarily, of the battle among candidates highlighting their social-conservative bona fides.

His election-night party was calm for much of the evening, with supporters quietly watching vote totals roll in that had Santorum pulling even with Romney and Paul.

But shortly after 10 p.m., with he and Romney within a few votes of each other, scattered chants of "Let's go Rick!" went up. And the cheers came in waves.

One staffer stepped to the microphone to pep up the crowd, declaring, "Let's just say Rick Santorum is very happy right now!"

But even as his underdog camp was basking in the night's results, they were plagued by questions about how the staunch conservative with a meager war chest could continue his rise against the well-funded, closer-to-the-center Romney.

In recent days, flanked by his wife, Karen, and six of their seven children, Santorum has pointed to his year of shoeleather campaigning - some 400 town hall meetings across all 99 Iowa counties - to explain his newfound popularity.

As the media interest in the two-term senator skyrocketed over the past week, he joked about that new attention and how little he received during much of his travels across the Hawkeye State.

He appeared surprised at first, then almost giddy, when polls last week showed his support rising dramatically.

With his rise came attacks from rivals. Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched a radio ad attacking Santorum's votes for earmark-funded projects and raising the national debt ceiling. Santorum defended the votes as wise allocations of tax dollars; Perry called it "fleecing the American taxpayers." But Perry finished far back on Tuesday. Santorum locked up several endorsements coveted by Perry and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, including Bob Vander Plaats of the Iowa Family Leader, an influential social conservative group here. Jim Bob Duggar, a Christian conservative whose large family is featured on the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, joined him on the trail last weekend, calling on evangelicals to rally behind Santorum.

Santorum was not shy about his campaign's financial limits; when they were described as a shoestring budget, he said, "That's insulting to a shoestring."

Still, Iowa's results gives the campaign momentum that even they had not expected.

"If someone would have come to us in 2006 and said in 2012 you would be leading in the first caucus, no one would have believed them," said John Brabender, the campaign's senior strategist and media consultant.

The Iowa returns energized Santorum campaign volunteers like Marcia Kostoulakos of Nashua, N.H. who attended at a caucus-watch party nearby Manchester Tuesday night.

"I believe so strongly in everything Rick believes in and its gratifying to know now that people in Iowa see that, too" said Ms. Kostoulakos, a retired government contract specialist. "For a long time we were hearing 'He's not electable, he's not electable.' Now we can say, 'Yes, he is.' "

If Newt Gingrich continues his downslide, Santorum could be the main beneficiary, said David Paleologis, polling director for Boston's Suffolk University, which has been surveying likely New Hampshire primary voters.

But no one - least of all the Santorum camp - is counting Gingrich out yet. He could surge again in South Carolina, said Bill Cahill, Santorum's senior adviser in New Hampshire.

For right now, though, Santorum isn't focusing on that. He's on his way to New Hampshire, where he expects to remain through Tuesday's primary. It's familiar territory for him: He's made 150 stops there over the last year, visiting cities and rural towns, with audiences as small as 15.

As in Iowa, he answered question after question until listeners tired of asking.

"He could have blown in Rick Perry-style - shake a lot of hands and get out of Dodge - but he stays to answer questions," Cahill said, "That's the tactic he's employed from the beginning. It's been town hall after town hall, door to door, shaking hands with people and asking them to vote for him."


Contact Laura Olson at lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254. Jim O'Toole and Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello contributed.

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