How the Santorum Surge in Iowa Changes the Race

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 29 2011 12:14 PM

The Santorum Surge

How his rising poll numbers in Iowa change the race.

(Continued from Page 1)

“My wife and I have dinner every week with two other couples,” says Steve Weeber, who proudly tells me that his family has lived in Iowa City since 1847. “Two are Democrats, two are Republicans. They’ve been saying that they could vote for Romney, but they could never vote for Gingrich.” Weeber’s pleased to learn that I saw Ron Paul (“Heavens, we love Ron Paul!”) and that I’m about to see Santorum (“You’ll come away impressed.”) But he fears they can’t win.

I ask whether the electable candidate is conservative enough. Weeber thinks about it. “Romney satisfies me,” he says. “I’m very confident about him when I look at his family. We can talk about all these issues, but when planes crash into the sides of the World Trade Center, when things like that happen, it’s character that you want to have in the White House.”

Romney takes the stage, introduced by one-time Men’s Health cover model Rep. Aaron Schock. “The Democrats are scared,” he says. “Why do you think this campaign bus is the only one being followed by Democratic trailers?” The Romneys trade jokes about their relationship. Mitt remembers how he knocked one of his future wife’s potential suitors out of contention.

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“I said, I live closer to Ann,” he says. “Let me drive her home.”

Ann tells the crowd about her campaign angst, how in 2008, she never wanted to do this again. “I told Mitt that,” she says. “I actually recorded it. But he reminds me that I said that after each birth. I do have five kids.”

When Mitt takes back the microphone, he delivers a stump speech totally free of attacks on other candidates. (He left that to Schock, who made an oblique reference to “some” who didn’t support Paul Ryan’s budget.) Romney’s speech is pure, patriotic cornpone, without any trace of Tea Party anger: Glenn Beck on Zoloft. “I’m not looking to transform America into something European,” Romney promises. “I’m looking to restore the dreams of patriots.”

He wants to prove this. “I want America to be more like America,” he says. “I love the songs of patriotism. Oh beautiful for—oh, beautiful for—oh, beautiful for spacious skies.” He briefly forgot the words to “America the Beautiful,” but he rolls on. “There we go! I know it. Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountain’s majesty, above the fruited plain. That about right? There are other verses I like. For example, Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Our soldiers. How many veterans do we have here?” The hands go up and the crowd applauds. Romney is safe.

He wraps and I head up to Santorum’s “Faith, Family, and Freedom” rally. Santorum discusses the “surge” talk, then points over to his tour banner. “I think we should change it,” he apologizes. “It might better be, Faith plus Family equals Freedom.”

This is Santorum’s M.O. Other candidates use the questions at town hall forums to pivot, to talk about issues they’re comfortable with—to sound moderate. Santorum takes questions as opportunities to explain just how conservative he is. He gets a softball question about energy exploration and brings up the losing fight to explore in ANWR. “Anybody ever see a picture of ANWR?” he asks. “It looks like nothing. It’s frozen over 10 months out of the year.” After one man rambles for a bit about how Obama’s policies remind him of freedom-choking socialism in Russia and Germany, Santorum hesitates, then sort of agrees.

“You’ve heard people say, ‘He's making the same speeches I heard when I was in Russia,’ ” says Santorum, referring to Obama. “People understand what's at stake.”

At this, his 357th town hall (his count), Santorum only simmers down when he’s asked which cabinet departments he’d abolish, saying that’s the wrong way to think about it. But the question does remind him that Ron Paul is hopeless.

“Ron Paul says he's gonna eliminate five departments,” says Santorum. “He's passed one bill in 25 years.”

Santorum wraps up, talking to whoever’s left, continuing conversations in the parking lot. The possible caucus-goers grab free popcorn and bottled water with “Santorum 2012” labels. Denise Mitchell, one of Santorum’s precinct captains in Linn County, had put all of that together, and she’d brought a cake, Iowa mapped out on top in icing.

“I first started paying attention to him, I think, when I heard him on talk radio,” she says. “He’s serious. He’s not going to meet with Donald Trump, or anything like that.”

The irony: Santorum was one of two candidates who agreed to appear at a now-scrapped debate hosted by Trump. Mitchell gives him a pass on that. Romney doesn’t seem serious about people like her, and Paul doesn’t seem serious at all. That leaves Santorum. He looks as good as he needs to.

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