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Rick Santorum’s spring break: A week of beer, bowling, brats and bocce ball

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
The Ticket

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Rick Santorum changes into bowling shoes in La Crosse, Wis. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

MILWAUKEE -- Rick Santorum, wearing red-and-blue bowling shoes and his gray sweater vest, leans forward and focuses his gaze on the last remaining pin at the end of the lane. As the speakers overhead blast Jessie J's "Domino" -- I'm feelin' sexy and free! Like glitter's raining down on me! -- Santorum takes three wide steps toward the line, swings his arm back and thrusts the heavy ball forward. It knocks the pin down with a whack.

"That was Romney!" Jim Bob Duggar shouts over the music, pointing to the defeated pin.

"Spare!" the text on a television screen above his head blares, before flashing a silhouette of two well-shaped girls in tight jeans gyrating their hips in celebration of the bowler's achievement.

It's Friday at Dale's Weston Lanes in central Wisconsin, and most of the crowd that attended a speech he gave earlier that night has left. Santorum is with his wife, Karen, two of their teenage children, and his traveling aides. The campaign has rented two lanes at the alley, and the Duggars, a Santorum-supporting television celebrity family, are playing in the alley next to theirs.

Bowling in Wisconsin is part of Santorum's intentional strategy to emphasize his "regular guy" image. Still, it's clear that he's actually enjoying himself.

[Related: Romney gets personal on the campaign trail]

On this night, Santorum bowls for more than an hour. He's working two lanes at once, rolling balls across the wood at a steady clip without stopping. He's focused. He's in the zone. He's having fun. By the end of the game, sweat is pouring down his face.

This is not just a gimmick: It's his way of releasing.

This is how Santorum spent much of his time in Wisconsin in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary. In the week before the  election here, he lugged his campaign team to seven bowling alleys, playing at least 150 frames. And when he wasn't bowling, he played other games. Santorum enjoyed a round of shuffle board at a restaurant in Green Bay; he tossed bocce balls with a group of strangers before a major speech in Milwaukee; he threw around a football at Lambeau Field and hit golf balls behind a country club in Mishicot before a rally. In Chippewa Falls on Friday, he gave an address on a sand volleyball court next to a tiki bar.

"I've been bowling my way across the state of Wisconsin and having a darn good time doing it, I might add," Santorum said during a Republican dinner in Milwaukee. "Between bowling, cheese curd, beer and, I'm having a great time."

Meanwhile, when asked what Romney does for fun in Wisconsin, a campaign staffer was all business.

"He wins."

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(Danny Yadron/Wall Street Journal)

As for the beer Santorum mentioned, he had plenty. (Always in moderation -- he usually ordered sample sizes.) On a nearly daily basis, Santorum downed a brew during lunch, and opened up to Wisconsinites about the alcohol he drank with his family growing up. "We had alcoholic beverages at home," Santorum said out of the blue while speaking to Republicans at an Eau Claire call center for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is facing a recall challenge.

"We had wine for dinner and was just sort of part of our culture, and I think a lot of people in this community can relate to that," he told reporters later.

Santorum tried all sorts of beers: On Palm Sunday, he ordered a triple sampler at a brewery in West Bend, including the "Feelin' Lucky" Irish stout. At a cheese factory in Appleton, he downed a bottle of "Road Slush" stout.

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"I'm a stout guy," he told the brewery owner before ordering two of them and an amber ale.

[Related: Palin's advice for Romney: Don't be afraid to go 'rogue' with VP choice]

Throughout the weekend, Santorum, known for being relatively dour at times, seemed cheerful -- gleeful even. He was relaxed, cracking jokes during his speeches and even slipping in a few cracks about himself. At a late night address in Pewaukee on Saturday, for instance, he jokingly mentioned his disastrous Senate defeat in 2006 against Bob Casey, a fact of history he rarely volunteers to discuss unprovoked.

"This is the most upbeat Santorum speech I've heard him give," observed NBC News embed reporter Andrew Rafferty, who has trailed Santorum across the country for months. "Maybe ever."

For Santorum, it is possible the apparent giddiness could be his way of accepting that the campaign season is winding down. He has arguably been one of the hardest working candidates in the race, having labored his way up from the bottom of the polls when he held events in Iowa that literally no one showed up for, to becoming the lead rival to the frontrunner. The man has only taken five days off the campaign trail since last summer, and spent most of that time eking his way along financially. With weak organization to speak of and an entourage that consisted of little more than the candidate and a friend with a Dodge Ram, Santorum went from being the candidate who could hardly get his name on the ballot in some states to becoming a household name. While the battle is certainly not over, it now appears this could be the beginning of the end.

After all of this, it is hard to blame him for taking a few calm days in Wisconsin, putting himself in someone else's shoes.

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Rick Santorum bowls in Platteville, Wis. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

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