JOHNSTON, Iowa -- What Rick Santorum accomplished here Tuesday will be remembered as one of the most miraculous comebacks in American political history. Only two weeks ago, the former Pennsylvania senator was regarded as a "second-tier" candidate, so far down in the polls that none of his rivals for the Republican nomination viewed him as a serious contender. And in his moment of triumph, he did not hesitate to pay tribute to the faith that sustained him during his long and often discouraging campaign.
"God has given us this great country to allow his people to be free," Santorum told a jam-packed crowd. "I offer a public thanks to God."
There were many others who deserved thanks for his success, among them a 24-year-old Iowa State University grad student named Jake Braunger who served as field director of the Santorum campaign in the Hawkeye State. But it was the candidate's family who were praised by name during the senator's victory speech. He began by quoting Christian writer C.S. Lewis, paying tribute to his wife Karen as his best friend, and spoke movingly of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who came to America to escape Mussolini's fascist regime. And Santorum thanked the voters of Iowa who, as of 1 a.m. local time, appeared to have given him a four-vote victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The margin shifted a few minutes later, with reports that Romney had won by 14 votes -- later amended to eight votes -- but that late news came more than an hour after Santorum took the stage and praised the people of Iowa.
"You have taken the first step toward taking back this country," Santorum told the crowd inside the conference center at the Stoney Creek Inn, crediting them with having the courage to lead the nation.
Santorum's supporters celebrated on what was a night of brutal humiliation for two former front-runners. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished a weak fourth place with 13 percent of the vote. Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- whom I dubbed Iowa's "Phantom Menace" in August -- was embarrassed by a fifth-place finish. With just 10 percent of the vote, Perry surely had the highest dollar-per-vote ratio of any candidate in Iowa, having spent millions on TV ads in a desperate attempt to recapture the momentum lost by his stumbling performances in a series of fall debates. Perry said during his speech he would return to Texas to "reassess" whether he still has a "path forward" toward the nomination. Many observers expect Perry to quit the race.
Santorum collected more votes than Gingrich and Perry combined, an astonishing feat by a low-budget campaign that was plagued by single-digit poll numbers all year, until a sudden late-December surge that most of the pundits (and none of his Republican rivals) seemed to have anticipated. More than 120,000 voters in Iowa turned out to deliver a stunning defeat to the purveyors of conventional wisdom who never dreamt that Santorum would be a serious factor here.
The underdog's victory destroyed one of the biggest arguments made against Santorum, namely the "electability" arguments offered by Republican pundits who had backed Perry or Gingrich as credible conservative alternatives to the more moderate Romney. How can it now be said that Santorum, having beaten both of those candidates, is not "electable"?
Santorum's campaign manager, veteran New Hampshire operative Mike Biundo, found himself surrounded by reporters asking the new front-runner about their plans for New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond. In recent days, TV talking heads and other pundits -- none of whom predicted Santorum's come-from-nowhere surge -- have repeatedly asserted that Santorum has little organizational strength in those states. But none of those pundits were standing outside the Stoney Creek Inn in the wee hours this morning when four members of Santorum's South Carolina campaign -- who had come to Iowa to lend a hand in the final few days here -- laughed in anticipation of the Jan. 21 primary in the Palmetto State. Perry had made South Carolina his "firewall" state and if the Texan quits the race, one of the Carolinians boldly predicted, "We will win South Carolina."
Of course, the former underdog candidate will first have to weather the intense scrutiny that has undone his predecessors as the "Anybody But Romney" candidate in the GOP field. The well-funded Romney campaign will likely unleash against Santorum the avalanche of TV attack ads that destroyed Gingrich's chances in Iowa, but Biundo was confident that his candidate can withstand the onslaught, telling reporters, "Bring it on."
It was nearly 1:30 a.m. when Santorum and his family finally left the private celebration upstairs at the Stoney Creek Inn. And on his way out the door, he summed up his miraculous campaign here: "Coolest race ever, huh?"
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