The Ticket

Has Rick Santorum’s moment finally arrived, just in time for Iowa?

Chris Moody
The Ticket

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Rick Santorum gestures as he waits to speak to local residents during a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa. (AP)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Despite a new CNN poll indicating what appears to be a last-minute surge for his candidacy--the first of the entire 2012 Republican presidential campaign--Rick Santorum is playing it cool. When reporters brought up the poll Wednesday after a town hall (his third of the day and his 359th in the state this year), Santorum was careful not to make any grand predictions.

"One poll does not make a boomlet," he said, adding, "I'm just going to keep working hard and believe in the people of Iowa that they're going to make the right choice."

Only a few days ago, Santorum was fielding questions about his campaign's demise. As late as Tuesday, Santorum said he would "pack up and go home" if he came in last in Iowa, something that didn't appear beyond the realm of possibility at the time.

Now, all anyone can talk about is how far he can take it. The latest sign of Santorum's growing confidence: His campaign is buying statewide TV ads in New Hampshire, which will begin airing on Monday, before Iowans have even voted, reports CNN's Peter Hamby.

Throughout the campaign, Santorum has kept his expectations low. For a long time, Santorum's best shot in Iowa was thought to be a fourth-place finish, behind Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney but ahead of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.

If he could just beat those two, Santorum said after a town hall in Dubuque on Wednesday, he would feel he was in a solid position to continue his campaign.

"That would be huge," he said. "That's a huge victory for us."

But coming in first place? Get real.

"Winning would be a complete shock to all of us," Santorum added.

That was before he knew about the CNN poll. It's just one data point among thousands in the campaign, but it has already affected how the news media is treating Santorum's candidacy. When CNN released the poll, the producers for NBC's "The Today Show," who had scheduled Santorum to be on the show next Monday, moved him up to Thursday morning. He also appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday morning, and will no doubt appear on more TV programs throughout the day.

On the trail, Santorum's pitch is that he's the best choice for conservative voters. He has adopted Bachmann's anti-Romney line, urging Iowa conservatives not to "settle for second best" when looking for a Republican nominee. He tells Iowans to ignore national polls because the people who participate in them "aren't paying attention," and cites an October Pew poll showing that 47 percent of Americans could not name a single Republican candidate.

"These are the people answering national surveys that's driving the national media to who the candidates should be," he says on the stump. "You asked to be first. Lead. Lead this country."

Before delivering his stump speeches, Santorum makes a point to meet with every person in the room. (More than 100 showed up for his rally here Wednesday night, and Santorum personally greeted each one who arrived on time.) The common refrain from many of his supporters is "nice to see you again," instead of "nice to meet you."

Compared to his competitors who are pouring millions of dollars into the state, Santorum is running a shoestring effort. To make up for his lack of money, he spent much of the past year traveling to each of the 99 counties in the state. Instead of a flashy campaign bus, he hitches rides with volunteers who take him from place to place. On this campaign, retail politics is king, mostly because he just doesn't have a choice.

And he's not afraid to admit that he's strapped for cash.

"People say, Why don't you this, why don't you do that? Well, we don't have the money to do it," he told the crowd in Cedar Rapids.

Santorum doesn't mind tossing barbs at other Republicans. At his stop in Dubuque on Wednesday, he ridiculed Bachmann's 11th-hour attempt to reach all 99 counties in Iowa as "speed dating" with voters.

"I respect the fact that she's trying to get around, but we did a courtship, we didn't speed date," Santorum said. "We went out and talked to folks and had coffee with folks and sat with them and answered their questions. We spent, what, an hour and 20 minutes here. You know, we didn't sort of run in and say, Hi, I'm great, vote for me. I don't think that's what Iowans are looking for."

As for Paul, well, don't even get Santorum started, although he did concede that if given a choice between the libertarian-leaning congressman and Barack Obama, he would vote for Paul.

After months traversing this state on what has been an at times unforgiving and often lonely trail, Santorum has a new-found hope that maybe, just maybe, his persistence here will pay off on Tuesday.

"People say, When are you going to get your surge?" he said. "I say, January 3. When Iowa votes."

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