Republican battle on new ground

Santorum: Ex-senator rides high on momentum - despite questions of whether he can keep it.

Posted: January 05, 2012

DES MOINES, Iowa - Everywhere Rick Santorum went, it seemed he'd been there before.

In the days before his shocking finish Tuesday in Iowa's Republican caucuses, Santorum would tell his audiences about the first time he had come to their town - early last year, perhaps, when two or three curious people came to the café on the square to meet a relatively obscure former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was wearing a sweater vest and running for president.

"You can't buy Iowa," Santorum said at one such event, the weekend before the vote. "You have to go out and work for it."

And work he did. By Wednesday, Santorum was jetting to New Hampshire for the next phase of the GOP nominating contest with the moral equivalent of a win in Iowa, having lost to Mitt Romney by eight votes out of about 120,000 cast, after languishing in the back of the candidate pack for months.

He arrived in Manchester carrying questions about whether he can capitalize on the momentum and build out a national campaign. Many Republican strategists are doubtful, noting that there is little time to catch up with Romney's machine, five years in the making. Santorum also is likely to be a bigger target of rivals' fire now.

In addition, the situation in New Hampshire is vastly different from Iowa's. It's a primary, not caucuses, so it draws a bigger turnout. And there are fewer of the voters that formed Santorum's Iowa base: A quarter of the electorate in the 2008 primary, compared with about 57 percent of participants in Tuesday's caucuses, described themselves to pollsters as evangelicals or born-again Christians.

Yet the Santorum campaign says it raised $1 million in the 24 hours since Iowa, and there are signs some on the party's right are seeking to coalesce around him - finally - as the best vehicle to stop Romney, who has a huge lead in New Hampshire polls.

"It's time for the conservatives to get off the sidelines and get into the arena," declared Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer who is setting up Santorum meetings. "Conservatives have dug in their heels, and they just don't want Romney."

David Urban, a Washington lobbyist with Pennsylvania ties who backs Santorum, said the Iowa showing would "energize" conservative money people who are not thrilled with Romney. "It's a whole new day," Urban said. "Rick has lived off the land for a long time, and he can keep going for a while on this win."

It helps that one rival with strong evangelical ties, Rep. Michele Bachmann, dropped out Wednesday after polling 5 percent in her native Iowa. But well-funded Texas Gov. Rick Perry plans to skip New Hampshire and head for South Carolina, home to more socially conservative Republicans and a Jan. 21 primary.

In Iowa, Santorum's was a lean organization, built with respected veterans such as Jill Latham, who ran Romney's 2008 grassroots operation there, and Chuck Laudner, former chief aide to conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King. Santorum had 381 town-hall events, honing his message in question-and-answer sessions with voters over more than 100 days.

"He was consistent with his strategy, didn't change it up when times got tough," said Craig Robinson, former executive director of the Iowa GOP and publisher of the Iowa Republican, a website. "He kept his head down and kept plowing, waiting for a spark."

Meanwhile, other conservatives faltered, and Santorum escaped the barrage of negative ads that sank former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"They say that timing in politics is everything, and Santorum had exceptional timing," Robinson said.

On Tuesday night, Santorum said his shoe-leather campaign had been a kind of homage to his grandfather, who left Mussolini's Italy to improve his family's lot and worked as a coal miner in Somerset County, Pa., until he was 72.

"I'll never forget the first time I saw someone who had died. It was my grandfather," Santorum told supporters, his voice husky with emotion. "I knelt next to his coffin. And all I could do - eye level - was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was, 'Those hands dug freedom for me.' "

Santorum's followers weren't alone in celebrating his Iowa showing. Democrats, seeing fissures in the GOP, said President Obama may have been the biggest winner on Tuesday.

As the votes were counted, Sue Dvorak, the Iowa Democratic chair, pointed to a touch-screen Google map of returns, with Santorum's counties colored purple, and a few scattered yellow counties - Des Moines, Davenport, Iowa City - carried by Romney.

"This is like soft porn for me," Dvorak joked. "Romney won 17 counties, and 13 of them are the highest-performing Democratic counties in the state. This is not good for him. It's going to make our job much easier in the fall."

David Axelrod, senior strategist for Obama's campaign, said fewer true Republicans turned out than in 2008; Tuesday's totals were boosted by independents who changed registration at the door to vote for libertarian Ron Paul.

That "raises real questions about the enthusiasm Republicans have for their own candidates," Axelrod told reporters. He also argued that Romney has been weakened by having to move to the right to mollify the GOP base, saying: "He entered as kind of a weak front-runner and he leaves as a weak front-runner."

Axelrod might have added: thanks in part to Santorum.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent. This article contains information from Inquirer wire services.

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