MASON CITY, Iowa — Rick Santorum isn't going down without a fight. In fact, that fight might be lifting him up.
The Republican presidential candidate who may have logged more miles than any other this year is more likely these days to be grinding it out on the campaign trail than trumpeting the buzz he's stirring among Iowa's conservative voters a week before the Jan. 3 presidential caucuses.
"We feel good," Santorum, a long-overlooked candidate in the GOP race, said with a thin smile as he left a midday campaign stop Tuesday in Mason City, seemingly hesitant — at least publicly — to buy into the notion that he's on the rise.
There are hurdles. His cash-strapped campaign has only just started running TV ads, and his organization is small in a state whose contests rely on the ability of campaigns to turn out a slew of supporters.
Still, there's evidence that Iowa Republicans, many of whom are still undecided and looking for a conservative candidate, may be starting to give the former Pennsylvania senator a look at just the right time.
"Rick Santorum could be a real surprise," said former Dallas County GOP Chairman Rob Taylor.
In recent days, Santorum's crowds have started growing as he rallies conservatives with a pit bull's pugnaciousness, and just a touch of anger.
He has earned the support of a number of key backers of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Republican caucuses. They include former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, conservative Sioux City radio host Sam Clovis and some influential evangelical pastors.
He landed the endorsement Tuesday of evangelical conservative activists Alex and Brett Harris, founders of Huck's Army, a national group that supported Huckabee's 2008 campaign.
"He's the only candidate in this race I trust," said Chuck Laudner, a veteran Iowa GOP operative who introduced Santorum to more than 100 party activists on Santorum's fourth trip to Mason City. "And he's a fighter."
As if to prove the point, Santorum launched into a speech filled with pokes at the national media and his rivals. For 90 minutes, he tore into President Barack Obama, Hollywood and moderate Republicans — and, by implication, rival Mitt Romney.
While Santorum's profile in Congress as a social-issues crusader bought him entrée with influential evangelical conservatives in Iowa, it's his unhesitating attack on liberals that seems to be fueling his rise in internal polls by rival campaigns.
"Let's look at colleges and universities," Santorum said in the ballroom of the restored Frank Lloyd Wright Park Inn Hotel on Mason City's town square. "They've become indoctrination centers for the left. Should we be subsidizing that?"
Santorum tossed out Harvard University's motto, "Veritas," Latin for truth. "They haven't seen truth at Harvard in 100 years."
Santorum refers to Obama as a "radical." Just as easily, though, he calls his own party's leaders "the good old guys you can count on to sell out in the end."
Even in entertaining questions from voters, he is frank and at times pointed.
"No, you're missing my point," he told Mason City Republican Julia Jones, a retired factory worker, as he tried to explain Social Security.
Jones, who walked into the event weighing Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, liked what she heard — and decided to support Santorum.
"He doesn't soften the edges, but he doesn't talk down to you either," Jones said. "He's just in-depth."
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