ALTOONA, Iowa -- A teenager stood beside the salad bar at Pizza Ranch here Monday night, surrounded by a huge crowd packed into the restaurant for Rick Santorum's final Iowa town hall meeting before Tuesday's caucuses. Carl Cameron of Fox News was there, as was conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham and so many reporters and photographers that some Republican voters who had come to see the surging Republican presidential candidate were forced to park in the lot of a nearby Hy-Vee grocery store. This vivid evidence that the former Pennsylvania senator has suddenly become the man of the hour in the Hawkeye State clearly made an impression on the brown-haired girl standing beside the salad bar.
"Our prayers are paying off," said 13-year-old Sarah Maria Santorum, whose father soon emerged from the throng, stood on a chair and addressed the crowd.
"This is our last town hall meeting -- this is number 380," the candidate told his supporters, many of whom have met him multiple times during the past year as he campaigned relentlessly across Iowa. "We're here with the entire family," said Santorum, praising his wife Karen for her support through the long campaign. "We felt that this was what we were called to do, to go out and speak and lay out a vision for this country, a vision that wasn't just about taxes and spending, wasn't just about growth. Yes, it's about all those things and, as you know if you've been to my town hall meetings, I talk a lot about those things. But it's also about what is at the core of our country, the values of this country. It's about faith and family."
For most of the past year, Santorum seemed to have little more than his faith and family to sustain his underdog campaign for the White House. His wife and children have been among his hardest-working volunteers, stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. If he had heeded the pollsters and pundits, he would have quit months ago. His poll numbers were stuck in the single digits and his fundraising was a fraction of the amounts collected by many of his GOP rivals. He got little recognition from the media and many of his campaign stops in the Hawkeye State weren't even covered by the local press. "The national media has done a very good job of ignoring Rick Santorum," he told a few dozen of his supporters at an Iowa event I covered in August, a week before the Ames Straw Poll. He suggested then that the lack of media coverage was a result of bias by liberal journalists who were trying to "suffocate" his campaign.
Whether or not they were trying to suffocate him then, the media are nearly smothering him in coverage now. Reporters from all over the world have descended on the Santorum campaign like a plague of locusts in the past week as polls showed him unexpectedly surging upward in the closing days before Tuesday's first-in-the-nation caucuses. At an overcrowded event Monday afternoon in Boone, where two people passed out and required medical attention, Santorum's press secretary Matt Benyon remarked about the massive media herd, "They're rude. They'll run people over. They nearly even ran over me."
If more media coverage was one item on the Santorum campaign's prayer list, their prayers have paid off beyond their wildest imaginings. And if getting more money was on the list, they're getting lots of that, too. While campaign sources weren't talking dollar amounts, Santorum himself has said they have received more online contributions in the past week than they had received in the past several months. There have been many more unexpected blessings for Santorum, who was flying coach class on his way back from Iowa when I interviewed him barely three weeks ago. The famous Duggar family, whose brood of 20 children have made them reality-TV stars, drove up from Arkansas to join Santorum on the campaign trail in Iowa this week, arriving in a bus decorated with "Santorum for President" signs. "We heard Rick needs some help, so here we are," said the family's 21-year-old son John David Duggar, explaining that Santorum "shares our values the best of all the candidates out there right now."
Those values were under siege yesterday on Fox News, when liberal commentator Alan Colmes criticized the Santorum family as "crazy" for how they coped with the death of their newborn son in 1996. But that criticism backfired and Colmes quickly apologized, so that the net effect was to encourage sympathy for Santorum and his family. When even the attacks of political enemies end up helping a campaign, the faithful may be forgiven for thinking perhaps their prayers really are being answered this week in Iowa. Hopes for a miraculous victory, however, must give way to more pragmatic matters as Santorum's political team tries to generate the final push for votes in Tuesday's caucuses. "I think turnout is going to blow the doors off four years ago," said former Iowa GOP executive director Chuck Laudner, one of the Santorum campaign's top supporters. Speaking of the latest poll numbers, Laudner said, "Our trajectory is up. The only question is, how high can it go?"
Most observers expect Santorum to finish in the top three, but the polls are sufficiently volatile that few are willing to risk a firm prediction. However high Santorum surges Tuesday night, his campaign is prepared to carry their newfound momentum forward from Iowa. While Santorum has campaigned tirelessly in the Hawkeye State, he has not ignored New Hampshire -- home state of his campaign manager, veteran Republican operative Mike Biundo -- and also has built a strong grassroots organization in South Carolina. Several members of Santorum's South Carolina team have come to Iowa to aid in the final push here, and one of them told me during an event Monday, "I'm laughing at all the media that keeps saying Rick doesn't have any organization in South Carolina. He's campaigned in South Carolina more than any other candidate has.… All we needed was a spark, and it looks like we got one."
That spark seems to have started a wildfire for Santorum here in Iowa, where a strong showing might be the first step toward one of the most remarkable comebacks in America political history. Santorum's surge could begin to redeem the pain his family suffered when he was defeated for re-election in Pennsylvania in 2006. (Jeffrey Lord recalls that campaign in his American Spectator column about Santorum today.) It was one of the worst wipeouts in the history of the Republican Party, which lost control of Congress in a landslide election driven largely by the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. Election Night 2006 was a painful one for many Republican, but for few was it more painful than for Santorum and his family. As the senator gave his concession speech that night, TV news cameras zoomed in on eight-year-old Sarah, who clung to a doll and wept uncontrollably. Sarah's tears were mocked by liberal commentators, but inspired a songwriter to compose a tune that was recorded by country music star Martina McBride, the chorus of which says, "Blessed be the child who turns a loving eye and stops to pray for these times in which we live."
Sarah Santorum and the rest of her family have been praying for many years, and tonight in Iowa they will wait for an answer to their prayers.
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