URBANDALE, Iowa — In a presidential campaign marked by sharp rises and falls, Republican Rick Santorum has experienced neither.
"I'm counting on the people of Iowa to catch fire for me," the former Pennsylvania senator, who described himself as a "strong conviction conservative," said Thursday during a debate with his rivals. "Iowans are beginning to respond."
His dogged courting of Iowans the old-fashioned way — campaigning in living rooms, coffee shops and town squares — may be starting to pay off and at just the right time, as Iowa's Jan. 3 presidential caucuses approach.
"Rick Santorum is the best-kept secret in the campaign," said Tom Clark, a West Des Moines Republican and one of about 150 people who came to hear the candidate at a suburban Des Moines restaurant this past week. Clark left the event as a Santorum supporter prepared to volunteer for him, despite this concern: "I just don't know if he can win."
That worry could be why Santorum remains near the back of the pack in national GOP surveys. He also trails former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in Iowa even though he has been the most aggressive campaigner in the leadoff caucus state. He's visited all 99 counties and held 350 campaign events.
Santorum acknowledges that not all gatherings have been as lively as the recent one at the Machine Shed restaurant in Urbandale.
He recalls the September day in quiet Red Oak when exactly one GOP activist, the Guthrie County chairwoman, showed up to meet him. He compared his Iowa effort to his underdog campaign in 1990 for the U.S. House, when he knocked on thousands of doors. He won.
"I'm sort of the guy at the dance, when the girls walk in they sort of walk by, and they take a few turns at the dance hall with the guys that are a little better looking, a little flashier, a little more bling," he told about 300 Nationwide Insurance employees in Des Moines this past week. "But at the end of the evening, old steady Eddie's there. He's the guy you want to bring home to mom and dad."
Steady is right. Santorum has survived where others have not.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, once viewed as a serious candidate to win the caucuses, and businessman Herman Cain, who led in Iowa polls in October, have dropped from the race. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry enjoyed sharp rises in support upon entering the contest, only to plummet later. They're now trying to claw their way back up.
Santorum's struggle has been to expand his steady base.
It's not been easy.
He lacks the national standing of Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2008, and the grass-roots libertarian-leaning network that's backing Paul.
But Santorum is a favorite of social conservatives, who count him as a crusader for their causes. A crowd of 1,000 cheered loudly and rose when Santorum was introduced at a Des Moines forum on Thursday sponsored by opponents of abortion rights.
The response was more spontaneous and jubilant than that for Bachmann, Gingrich or Perry, and was a reminder that Santorum was no stranger to this crowd.
A dogged opponent of abortion rights during his two terms in the Senate, Santorum told the audience in the old downtown theater that there was no disconnecting social issues such as marriage and abortion from the economy and other national priorities.
"This country is based on a moral foundation," Santorum said. "If we don't get the moral issues right, we will never get the economic or foreign policy issues right."
It's that pitch that has Iowans starting to line up behind Santorum.
"He knows what he's talking about," said Pat Pederson, a Republican from Adel who attended Santorum's restaurant event Thursday. "He's conservative in his policies, but frankly, has a lot to say on the economy and national security."
Santorum picked up an endorsement this month from a statewide elected official in Iowa, a rarity in this fluid campaign. It came from newly elected Secretary of State Matt Schultz, an up-and-comer in Iowa GOP politics.
Santorum also has also won the support of some evangelical pastors.
One is Cary Gordon, a Sioux City minister who led the effort to oppose the retention of three Iowa Supreme Court judges last year in light of that court's ruling to allow gay marriage in Iowa. A second is Rev. Terry Amann, from one of the Des Moines area's most politically active evangelical churches.
Santorum isn't going on TV with campaign advertisements, which is a sign of a thin campaign fundraising account. But a political action committee that is supporting his candidacy but is unaffiliated with the campaign began airing ads this past week.
They could provide lift in a state where a surprisingly strong finish could propel him into the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, the next context in the race.
He is poised to surprise in an Iowa campaign where Perry is making a late charge with more than $1 million in advertising in the closing weeks.
"Santorum is all organization. There's nothing to catapult him," said John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes 2000 Iowa campaign. "He has the ability to over-perform, but that's all he's got unless he gets hot, and time is running out."
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