IOWA CITY, Iowa — Rick Santorum bagged at least four pheasants during his hunting trip Monday at Doc’s Hunt Club. Those four birds were just the “clean kills” that he was certain were the result of his own marksmanship — a conservative count, Santorum emphasized to the crowd of reporters who showed up at the hunting club in Adel, west of Des Moines.
While the former Pennsylvania senator was pleased with his outing, most of the reporters who showed up were more interested to know if Santorum had bagged even bigger game during this political season — the endorsement of his hunting companion, Iowa Rep. Steve King. But the conservative Republican congressman said he wasn’t quite ready to make that commitment.
“You know, I came here today to shoot some pheasants with my friend Rick Santorum and we’re having a great day,” King told the reporters assembled for Monday’s press conference. “So I’m going to deliberate on all of this and I’ve got a few days yet before a decision has to be made.… I’m leaving that open.”
He had expected to have already made up his mind as to which of the GOP presidential candidates to endorse, King said, but “the dynamics of the entire race” had left him still undecided. “I want my head and my heart to come together,” the congressman said, leaving open the possibility that he might make an endorsement sometime before next week’s first-in-the-nation caucus — or maybe not.
King’s indecision is perhaps symbolic of the state of the Republican race here in Iowa, where the fight among a large field of contenders has left many voters still unresolved about their preferences as the Jan. 3 date approaches. In a long campaign defined by up-and-down cycles in the polls, where no front-runner has been able to sustain a lead for more than a few weeks, many Iowans haven’t yet made up their minds and may not make their final choices until after they arrive at their precinct locations next Tuesday night. With conservatives apparently divided between four candidates — Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — the current polls indicate that the candidates most likely to win Iowa are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
One veteran Iowa observer, Davenport-based GOP consultant Steve Grubbs, says that situation might make whoever places third the de facto winner. “It’s not about who finishes first,” said Grubbs, who until recently was statewide director for the now-defunct Herman Cain campaign. “Ron Paul — maybe he wins at 27 percent, but it’s still just 27 percent.” With Paul winning the libertarian vote and Romney winning moderates, Grubbs sees the key action as the fight among the four conservatives who are now going all-out here in the final week. “I think that’s what the story is, right there — who will be the conservative who comes out of Iowa? That’s the exciting part of the race.” And among those candidates, Grubbs says, “Santorum’s got the momentum right now.”
Santorum certainly agrees with that. “Well, I definitely feel that way,” he said at his press conference with King at the hunt club in Adel. “We’ve got momentum, but it takes a strong foundation and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve built a very strong foundation here in Iowa. We’re very excited that we’ve got a thousand caucus captains, people who are going to be there, most of whom if not all of whom have met me, who can go in… and say, ‘He was here. I met him when he was here. Let me tell you, I looked into his eyes and this is what he believes.…'”
Among those caucus captains is Aaron Rupp, an engineer from Cedar Rapids who met Santorum for the 11th time Monday. Like many other Santorum supporters, Rupp is an evangelical Christian in a state where social conservatives have traditionally played an outsized role in deciding Republican caucuses. Despite the current numbers showing Paul and Romney leading the Hawkeye State — with about 43 percent of the GOP vote between them, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average — the question of whether the social conservative vote will coalesce behind one of the other candidates has bedeviled Republicans here. In November and early December, it appeared that Gingrich would emerge as the conservative favorite, but then came a barrage of attack ads — first from Romney, then from Paul and later from Perry. Within two weeks, Gingrich’s support was cut nearly in half. “I think Newt has been in freefall,” says Grubbs. “I’ve never seen so many negatives fall on the head of one candidate in such a short period of time.”
Meanwhile, Santorum’s candidacy has picked up a string of major Iowa endorsements, including the support of Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an important social conservative organization. That endorsement became somewhat controversial last week when some suggested that Vander Plaats was engaged in a pay-for-play arrangement with Santorum, which the candidate described Monday as a misunderstanding. “I’m happy I got his endorsement,” Santorum told a reporter who asked about the controversy. “I don’t see it as any trouble. I think obviously some people who didn’t get the endorsement are trying to stir the pot and make it what it isn’t.”
Another reporter asked Santorum about the poll numbers, which show him just now beginning to break into double digits here in Iowa. “We still have a week to go and no votes have been cast,” he answered. “We feel very good. We have a lot of energy on the ground. Our campaign is clearly the one that is rising right now and has the momentum. And we feel that’s going to continue on over the next week. As I’ve said from the very beginning, we’re going to surprise a lot of people with how well we do on caucus night.”