CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Rick Santorum took time to shake the hands of everyone who attended his "Faith, Family & Freedom Rally" here Wednesday night, and stayed nearly an hour after the scheduled end of the event to answer questions from the Republican audience. Only then did he take time to talk to the press.
"People are trying to determine right now, 'Who can we really trust?'" the former Pennsylvania senator told a small group of reporters at a brief impromptu press conference after the event. "I think it's going to build. I feel very good that we're not going to stop there and, hopefully, keep moving up the ladder."
The Republican presidential candidate was responding to the latest Iowa poll by CNN and Time magazine that shows him now in third place in the Hawkeye State, moving ahead of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The poll confirmed the widespread impression of many Iowa-watchers that Santorum's low-budget campaign is surging in the final days leading up to next Tuesday's precinct caucuses. According to the CNN/Time poll, Santorum's support has increased from 5 percent to 16 percent in the past three weeks, while Gingrich's support has collapsed from 33 percent to 14 percent.
Santorum refused to speculate on how far "up the ladder" he might climb by the time votes are counted Jan. 3. "No, I'm not going to pick a number and no, I'm not going to tell you what place I'm going to finish," he told reporters.
No candidate has spent more time in Iowa this year than Santorum and, for many months, it seemed that his old-fashioned approach to campaigning -- Wednesday night's event was his 357th such meeting with Iowa Republicans -- might never pay off. His poll numbers were mired in the single digits, and moderators in televised debates always seemed more interested in whatever "Flavor of the Month" candidate seemed to be emerging as the leading conservative rival to the GOP campaign's persistent front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In September, the flavor of the month was Perry, who was undone by his disastrous debate performances. In October, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain surged to the top of the polls, only to be taken down by a series of sexual allegations. In November, Gingrich soared ahead, but saw his Iowa numbers plummet when he was hit by a barrage of negative TV ads sponsored by Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and Perry. But while Santorum never had any of that front-runner glory, he kept campaigning steadily in the Hawkeye State and this month secured a number of key Iowa endorsements, as well as praise from national figures like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and talk-radio host Mark Levin. Now, as the moment of final decision nears for Iowa's first-in-nation caucuses -- when more than 40 percent of Republicans here tell pollsters they might still change their minds between now and Tuesday -- Santorum's investment in old-fashioned campaigning appears to be paying off.
Is Santorum now enjoying his own "boomlet" Shushannah Walshe of ABC News asked the candidate Wednesday. "One poll does not make a boomlet," he answered. "A lot of hard work -- I think I can safely say, the work we've put in, meetings like this are getting bigger and bigger because all the work we did and talked about the issues, talked about our plans, talked about our record, talked about character, talked about issues that are 'kitchen table' issues." He attributed his success to "folks in Iowa who care about this process and care to make sure that Iowa gets it right and lifts up the right person to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney and to be the right alternative to Barack Obama."
Not everyone was pleased by evidence that those "folks in Iowa" may be shifting Santorum's way. Erick Erickson of Red State pronounced the apparent Santorum surge "another factor ensuring Mitt Romney wins the nomination." Erickson, who is also a CNN commentator, added: "I have to throw up a bit in my mouth that Iowa conservatives are seriously considering Rick Santorum, which will only help Mitt Romney."
Erickson was among the earliest boosters of the Perry campaign, hosting the Texan's campaign announcement at a Red State conference in South Carolina Aug. 13, the same day as the Iowa GOP Straw Poll in Ames. Perry's perceived "diss" of Iowa in August might not have come back to haunt him if he had been able to consolidate the "Anybody But Romney" vote. But once his poll numbers collapsed, a strong showing here in the Hawkeye State became an imperative if Perry was to maintain his campaign's viability. He has reportedly spent nearly $3 million on TV ads in Iowa and yet remains in the so-called "second tier" of candidates, virtually tied with Santorum and former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls.
If Santorum is now emerging from that "second-tier," it may be because social conservatives here, who have long been undecided between him and Bachmann, are finally making their decisions. The perception that Santorum's campaign is now the stronger of the two was given surprising emphasis Wednesday when Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorensen, announced that he was endorsing Ron Paul.
Santorum had no comment on that shocking news Wednesday, and said he was concentrating on his own campaign -- the same old-fashioned campaign he has pursued all year. "I'm just going to keep working hard," he said, "and believe in the people of Iowa, that they're going to make the right choice."
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