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.

GOP presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) talks to reporters in Adel, Iowa.
Rick Santorum had been in high single digits or low double digits for a while, but 16 percent puts him in third place

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Rick Santorum has been telling you, and telling you, and telling you, and now, finally, you’re listening. He paces in front of 60-odd conservatives in a room of the TrueNorth Learning Center, wearing a brown sweater vest, gesticulating, describing how he’s been proven right.

“People say, well, when are you gonna get your surge?” says Santorum. (Some of the “people” are the reporters in the back of the room; some are the Iowa conservatives who keep doubting him.) “Everybody in this race has had their surge, and their bump. Why haven’t you had it? I say, I’m gonna get mine the old fashioned way. Actual people who know the candidates coming on board and helping us. Not some media creation. Not some clever line. But actually folks who are taking their time to look at the records, to look at the vision, to look at the character, to look at the courage.”

Santorum has been saying this all year. It stopped sounding ridiculous on Wednesday. A CNN/Time/ORC poll taken before and after Christmas showed Santorum at 16 percent support with registered Iowa Republicans. He’d been in high single digits or low double digits for a while, but 16 percent put him in third place, behind Romney and Paul. Third place meant that the media would take him seriously. So excuse Santorum for gloating.

“People say, when are you gonna get your surge?” Santorum repeated. “I say, January 3.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

If Santorum is gaining, he is the fifth candidate not named “Mitt Romney” to experience an Iowa “surge.” (That word, which fits so snugly on cable news chirons, is doomed for overuse in horse-race talk.) Four of these candidates have collapsed. Michele Bachmann, who surged first, spent Wednesday night losing her campaign chairman and theorizing that he was bought off. Rick Perry peaked the moment he entered the race, before voters actually listened to him talk. Herman Cain collapsed after a month of sex scandals—although, let’s be fair, he told the media he was “done” with the scandals after the first week. Newt Gingrich, dive-bombed by ads from the Romney-aligned Restore Our Future PAC, just collapsed back into the low teens, and is reportedly burning $500,000—much of his liquid campaign cash—on some last-ditch positive TV ads.

The only candidate in Iowa who’s gained ground and avoided a complete implosion is Ron Paul. Hours before catching Santorum I drove to the offices of GuideOne Insurance, in West Des Moines. Paul was the afternoon speaker for a hundred or so employees. They gathered in the cafeteria, making space for a Christmas tree and a dozen or so TV cameras, to listen.

“It’s not that I’ve gotten to be a better speaker,” Paul says. He really hasn’t. Even as he’s moved up in polls, Paul has kept his habit of running sentence after idea after sentence, gluing them all together with “ands,” and moving on. “The message has been the same,” he says, “and the message is very important, and the people are looking for a different message. I’ve been interested in economics for a long time, even when I was studying medicine. I came across a school of economic thought called Austrian economics. It’s free markets, is basically what it is. It’s different than monetarism, different than Keynesianism, different than socialism. ”

The insurers get a 26-minute beginner’s tour of economic theory, from a guide who seems to be talking to the advanced class. They learn that keeping military bases in Europe amounts to a “welfare check to Germany,” and that the economy would get boosted if the bases were closed. “Instead of spending their money in Okinawa or in Germany, they’d be spending it here,” says Paul. The economic crisis would end if we just allowed banks to be liquidated. “In 1921, they had a depression,” he says. “It was bad, it was over in a year.”

Some of the insurers use this time to rest their eyes. Some are bent forward, eyes open, as if watching TIE fighters take down the Death Star on an IMAX screen. “We’ve been reading his book, End the Fed,” explains Tom Icatar. His wife Terry nods. Icatar is one of three people who gets to ask Paul a question. Naturally enough, he wants to know how Paul would start breaking down the power of the Federal Reserve.

“I would legalize the Constitution and money,” says Paul. “Today, if you take old silver dollars and old American coins and use them as money, you could be in big trouble! If you use them at face value, you could go to jail. But I’d like to legalize competition currencies. It’s been done before. The world is competing with currencies all the time—yen, euros.”

Paul spends a little grip-and-grab time with the crowd, telling one woman that he won’t send her sons to war (“if you want to hire a private army, go ahead”), and heads out for a “tribute to veterans” rally where he’ll be received like Caesar back from Gaul. I head out to North Liberty, a suburb in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City metroplex, to catch Romney at a plastic mold manufacturer called Centro, Inc. Trucks and sedans fill every inch of parking space by the road up to the factory; a local cop idles in his car, getting out every minute or so to warn somebody not to try and park in a nearby development. I joined the herd and parked on grass.

The Republicans who made it inside, around 300 of them, are confident that they’re looking at a future president. They pose for photos with Romney’s “Believe in America” banner behind them, near machinery and ready-to-ship molds.

“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.

“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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