JOHNSTON, Iowa — Rick Santorum made a bold prediction here Friday night: The Pittsburgh Steelers will go all the way to the Super Bowl for a rematch with the Green Bay Packers.
The former Pennsylvania senator was enjoying a rare moment of relaxation on the campaign trail here in Iowa, where voters will gather Tuesday night to cast the first real votes that count toward the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Santorum was wearing a University of Iowa Hawkeyes cap at the Okoboji Grille, where he gathered with supporters to watch the Hawkeyes play the Oklahoma Sooners in the Insight Bowl. When he arrived at the restaurant in Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines, Santorum was swarmed by reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen who have swooped down on his campaign in the past week as polls began indicating that he was surging ahead in the pack of GOP candidates.
Most of the reporters had left the restaurant (and the Hawkeyes were well on their way to a 31-14 loss to the Sooners) by the time I had the chance to ask Santorum about his beloved Steelers. “We will beat the Browns this week,” he said, sitting in front of a half-finished platter of nachos. “My prediction is, both the Patriots will lose to the Bills and the Ravens will lose to the Bengals and we will be the Number One seed in the AFC playoffs.”
But while the underdog-turned-contender was willing to risk prognosticating the NFL all the way to the Super Bowl, he has remained hesitant to predict how he’ll finish in Tuesday’s caucuses. Santorum obviously wants to exceed expectations, but the poll numbers and media buzz surrounding his campaign are making it hard to suppress those expectations. Sunday morning’s Des Moines Register carried a big front-page headline: “Romney, Paul lead; Santorum closes in,” with two subheads, “Poll shows three-way race with two days to go,” and “Late spurt ‘another stunning turn.'” The latter subhead was a partial quote from Republican strategist David Polyansky, who told the Register‘s Jennifer Jacobs, “Few saw this bombshell coming. In an already unpredictable race this is another stunning turn of political fortune.”
It is certainly true, as Polyansky says, that “few” expected Santorum to emerge as a contender in the final days before the caucuses, but the candidate himself says he always believed — even when polls showed him at the back of the GOP pack, mired in single digits — that conservative Iowans would eventually rally behind his campaign. “From the very beginning, I said I would trust the people of Iowa,” he said Sunday at an event in Sioux City, where he urged his supporters, “Stand up and fight for your freedom.… Fight for what’s right.”
That message echoes the Santorum campaign’s slogan, “Join the Fight,” encouraging his supporters’ sense that they are part of a guerrilla army fighting against liberalism, fighting against the media, and also fighting against the Republican Party establishment. The candidate closes each stump speech with a call for recruits to join the campaign’s team of more than 1,000 “caucus captains,” whose job will be to organize and persuade Republicans to support Santorum at the Tuesday night precinct meetings where the votes will be cast. A big challenge for these captains in Santorum’s army will be to convince Iowans that Santorum is the conservative with the best chance to beat the Republican establishment’s choice for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Arguments about “electability” have dogged Santorum during the past year of campaigning, as first one candidate and then another took their turns as the GOP front-runner. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the field in August, he quickly zoomed ahead of Romney before tumbling downward after a series of bad debate performances. Perry’s supporters argued — and still do argue — that their candidate’s economic record in Texas and his strong fundraising ability makes him the best alternative to Romney. That argument will be hard to sustain if, as polls currently indicate, Perry finishes as far back as fifth place in Iowa, where he has far outspent his rivals, airing TV ads in an attempt to recover his lost front-runner status. A similar problem confronts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose poll numbers zoomed upward in November only to come crashing down under a December blizzard of Iowa attack ads from Romney, Perry, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Despite their decline in the polls, however, both Perry and Gingrich are still within just a few points of third place — behind Romney and Paul — and it is possible that they may yet wrestle from Santorum’s grasp one of the coveted “three tickets out of Iowa,” as campaign-watchers describe the Hawkeye State’s role in winnowing the field of presidential contenders.
If the numbers in the final Des Moines Register poll are accurate, however, Santorum’s closing surge may be strong enough to vault him into second place, ahead of Paul — a result which would turn the “electability” argument on its head. How can Gingrich and Perry’s advocates claim that they are credible alternatives to Romney, if they can’t even beat a low-budget underdog campaign like Santorum’s? And what does it say for the vaunted superiority of those other campaigns that they failed to realize Santorum was moving ahead here until it was too late for them to respond effectively? The same might be said for another Republican candidate who has banked heavily on Iowa, Rep. Michele Bachmann. At her headquarters in Urbandale, Bachmann’s campaign on Friday was still distributing a slick full-color flyer promoting her as a “consistent conservative.” The flyer contrasts her record to Romney, Perry, and Gingrich, but doesn’t mention either Santorum or Paul. Craig Robinson of the influential IowaRepublican.com website said Sunday that the Bachmann flyer was probably printed before anyone realized that Paul and Santorum would be top contenders here. Similarly, when the Perry campaign went on the attack here against Santorum last week — reportedly after their own internal polling showed the Pennsylvanian pulling away — they could only use a radio ad, because it was too late to produce and book time for a TV commercial.
Meanwhile, the Santorum campaign issued their own TV ad making their closing argument to Iowans: “Who has the best chance to beat Obama? Rick Santorum,” the ad’s narrator says, describing him as a “full-spectrum conservative” who has “more foreign policy credentials than any candidate,” offering “our best chance to take back America.” This is the message that Santorum hopes will give him the final push he needs on Tuesday — and beyond. His new commercial will also begin airing this week in New Hampshire, the campaign announced Saturday, sending a signal that they believe voters in the Hawkeye State will give them a chance to take their fight forward, and ask Americans to join the fight that began here in the heartland.