MUSCATINE, Iowa — A lot of things stand out about Rick Santorum's dogged bid for the Republican presidential nomination, many that buck conventional political wisdom and are the hallmarks of a campaign on a shoestring budget.
With the Iowa caucuses looming Tuesday, most candidates are rumbling across the state in garishly painted buses with loudspeakers blaring campaign music to announce their presence in usually tranquil Iowa towns. Santorum's vehicle of choice: Chuck Laudner's heavy-duty pickup — licensed in Floyd County — with the GOP activist at the wheel and aide Matt Beynon working in the back seat.
"People say, 'Where's my bus?' and I say this is my bus — it's a pickup truck," Santorum chuckled during a Cedar Rapids rally.
Iowa's airwaves are filled with TV commercials in the run-up to the caucuses, some relentlessly bashing rivals for sins real or imagined. But Santorum's presence is much more restrained, largely a consequence of the fact that he couldn't afford any until recently.
"You're not hearing a lot of my ads on the air," he concedes.
And yet, his low-key, scaled-down approach appears to be working.
He's seeing a burst of momentum as Iowans give him a long-awaited look in a GOP field that has seen every other contender rise to the top of polls — at least briefly. But his challenge is significant, and while some surveys show him moving past conservative rivals like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, those opponents continue to command backing, effectively dividing the votes of social and religious conservatives who hold great sway in Iowa and beyond.
To some extent, Santorum's rise probably can be attributed to a relentless, face-to-face campaign schedule that included holding hundreds of usually small events where he offers his standard pitch and then hangs around to take questions for as long as folks want to pepper him.
"We've done, as of today, 357 town meetings in Iowa," Santorum crows, adding that he didn't just speak to Iowans, but courted them. "We weren't speed-dating."
At those events, he constantly refers to himself as "steady Eddie," or the reliable, solid guy who gets the girl over flashier rivals, and that's exactly the style of his campaign.
His latest town hall-style meeting in Muscatine was in a historic restored restaurant on the banks of the Mississippi River, where he spoke to about 100 people.
Santorum gazed around the room and chuckled.
"We were in this facility a while ago and there weren't this many people," he said. He gestured to a bank of television cameras recording the event and said: "More importantly, there weren't a lot of people with machinery here."
Santorum is betting that the tradition of retail politics in Iowa is still the driving force in the state's political culture, and there is clearly some interest in his campaign. His crowds generally have gotten bigger as his standing in the polls has grown. Undecided voters are turning out to learn about the candidate who all of a sudden is the buzz.
Bob Bahn, a veteran Muscatine activist, has met most of the candidates and is still studying the field. But he had praise for Santorum's commitment to grassroots politics. "Maybe it's paying off now," he said. "Maybe it's Santorum's time now."
Kevin Lilienthal lives in rural Muscatine County and says he's about "90 percent" sure he'll back Santorum, but he adds that he and all the people he knows need to have the deal closed in person.
"I want to hear what their positions are," Lilienthal said. "I want to make an educated decision."
It's far from clear whether the crowds he's drawing are a sign of support.
As Santorum held one event in a downtown Dubuque mall, Gerry Ryan stood around the edges.
"I work here and it's my lunch hour," Ryan said, adding that he had no plans to attend a caucus. "It's just curiosity."
But David Betts of Dubuque, who also hovered nearby as he weighed which candidate to caucus for, said, "I'm open to him," adding that he needed to know "why I should vote for him instead of the others."
If Santorum's campaign is close to the grass roots, it also has an occasional feel of playing it by ear.
After hearing Santorum speak at a town hall in Independence, Ben Lange, a local activist who ran for Congress, joined in and insisted on squiring the candidate around to a local business. In the middle of the day, many people were on the phone and not terribly impressed to have a presidential candidate around.
On Thursday, the campaign scheduled a photo-friendly stop at a candy store in Wilton, only to cancel it. The store, it seems, was closed.
For all the talk of strength, Santorum's campaign tacitly acknowledges a money problem. Aides issued a plea for help after polls showed him gaining ground.
Money will become increasing crucial after Iowa's precinct caucuses, where Santorum had two years to rattle around in a pickup truck and convince activists one by one. There's only a week between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, and the race turns to South Carolina and Florida later in the January. Much of the contest will be waged on the air in those states.
Santorum is undeterred.
"I'm excited to go to New Hampshire," he told activists in Coralville. "Iowa provides the spark, but there's plenty of timber on the ground that will start burning in those other states."
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