BLUFFTON, S.C. — Looking to recapture the magic of his Iowa surge, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is bringing to South Carolina the shoe-leather strategy that propelled him to a near-win in the Midwest state.
Call it Santorum's Iowa Lite: He is using the same retail politics and frequent town hall meetings — and love of sweater vests — as he tries to win over voters ahead of the first-in-the-South primary on Jan. 21.
He's even riding around in the same gray Dodge pickup that carried him to campaign events in the Hawkeye State.
"Brings good luck," said Chuck Laudner, the volunteer who drove his truck 16 hours from Iowa to South Carolina to chauffeur Santorum this week.
But questions remain about whether the former Pennsylvania senator, who visited all 99 counties in Iowa, will have the money or the momentum to compete in a compressed timetable with just nine days until the South Carolina primary.
Santorum, 53, slumped after his Iowa surge, placing fourth in the New Hampshire primary this week, and is now polling in the middle of the pack in South Carolina.
He trails front-runner Mitt Romney, who after victories in the first two state nominating contests is looking to sew up the nomination to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.
"That surge is gone," said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
Santorum is counting on conservative Republicans in South Carolina for another boost, and advisers say the poor showing in New Hampshire hasn't staunched campaign contributions or enthusiasm.
The campaign announced this week it has opened six offices across the state and has volunteers organized in 42 of 46 counties.
"We're relying on the ground game, we're relying on the grass roots, we're relying on our sweat equity," said Gresham Barrett, a former congressman who is serving as Santorum's campaign chairman in South Carolina. "And I think so far, it's been pretty effective."
After forgoing advertising in New Hampshire, the Santorum campaign plans to spend at least $1.5 million getting his name out in the southern state, said national communications director Hogan Gidley.
"We saved all of our money [for South Carolina]," Gidley told Reuters. "We have money to last."
On Thursday, the campaign showed it has its eye on the long game and intends to still be viable after the Florida primary on Jan 31. It announced a leadership team for Santorum in Nevada, which hold its presidential nominating caucus on Feb. 4.
Santorum's values-packed message could prove his greatest strength in South Carolina, where his outspoken stances against abortion and gay marriage appeal to the overwhelmingly conservative and religious Republican primary voters.
Exit polls for the 2008 primary election showed nearly two-thirds attended church at least once a week and seven in 10 believed abortion should be illegal.
Santorum, a Catholic, peppered his stump talks to large, mostly white crowds in the Palmetto State this week with frequent references to Judeo-Christian values and family, noting that his wife and seven children are traveling with him in South Carolina.
He drew applause at his "Faith, Family & Freedom" forum in West Columbia on Wednesday night for an answer about how he would glorify God in the White House.
"Every decision I make, I try to bring both faith and reason," Santorum said, later adding, "I'm not afraid to thank God publicly for the grace that he's given me today."
He also ramped up his focus on bringing back manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas as a way to help small-town America thrive again.
The jobs issue is key in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate is above the national average at 9.9 percent.
"While they still care about social issues, jobs is the number one priority," political science professor Oldendick said of South Carolina voters.
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.