Fickle Iowans and a consistent message give Santorum a chance to win

Chris Moody

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- In the final hours before Iowans make their choice for the Republican presidential nominee, Rick Santorum has been making some of his final stops here in Iowa's rural, conservative northwest corner. As he makes the last push to the finish, Santorum is clearly hoping to put himself over the top with a region full of his most fervent supporters.

Even though he has invested more of his time in the state--hosting more than 350 town halls, at least one in each of Iowa's 99 counties--than any of his competitors, Iowa voters are only coming around to the Santorum cause. The final Des Moines Register poll taken before the caucuses showed Santorum trailing Romney and Ron Paul, but rising fast. There are several reasons why Santorum is just now beginning to resonate here.

First, Iowans have proved themselves to be an indecisive bunch this campaign. The same Des Moines Register poll that confirmed Santorum's momentum also showed that 41 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers were still open to changing their minds before they vote on Tuesday. Over the course of the campaign, the Register poll has shown Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul at or near the top of the list.

Like crabs in a bucket, every time a 2012 Republican candidate has scrambled above the pack, the others have latched on to the newest leader--with a little help from a more-than-willing news media--and pulled the candidate down again. (Mitt Romney seems to be the only contender able to overcome the law of politics dictating that what goes up must come down.)

With the caucuses taking place on Tuesday, there likely won't be enough time for the other candidates to unleash a round of attacks on Santorum in a way that will resonate. Santorum may have wanted more air time and a longer moment in the spotlight--but waiting so long for his rise in the polls could be a blessing. He has benefited from the benign neglect of the rest of the field: None of his competitors found it useful to spend resources on attacking him.

On the trail, Santorum tells voters that he's the combination of a principled conservative and an electable nominee that they have been looking for all along. His stump speech is heavy on his record in Congress, pointing to his successful Senate elections for two terms to represent Pennsylvania, a swing state with a long Democratic legacy. (Never mind that he lost by double digits in 2006, although when asked, Santorum attributes it to the national anti-Republican wave that year.)

He's also not shy about adding a dose of flattery in each of his speeches before Iowa voters.

"The people of Iowa are doing their homework," Santorum said Sunday in Orange City, a small, conservative town in northwestern Iowa. "I told reporters over and over, just wait. When the people of Iowa sit down and they come to make that decision, they're going to lead. And they're going to be bold. So people ask me why we're rising in the polls. That's what I believe it's happening. We've laid out a bold message for this country and we have a strong track record to back it up."

If you ask Iowans what separates Santorum from the others, you'll usually hear similar responses: He shares my values; he shows the strongest willingness to oppose abortion; he's someone I can trust to champion conservative causes in Washington. But the word you heard most often is "consistency."

"I listened to him in June and the thing that impressed me most about him tonight is that his message was consistent with what he said then," Randy Bosh of Rock Rapids told Yahoo News after a town hall on Sunday. "He said the same things today."

Of course, there's always the possibility that Santorum's rise has little to do with his message. He could simply be  the last candidate standing as conservative voters who don't like Romney scramble to find someone to support.

When they try to explain the surge, Santorum staffers, like their boss, hew to the message that the Iowa voter is deliberate and methodical. "The voters of Iowa, they take their job seriously. They whittle it down," Hogan Gidley, a Santorum spokesman, told Yahoo News. "When it came time to actually decide who they wanted to vote for, they had to see everybody first."

"A couple of weeks ago, before Christmas, we were in last place, so I don't want to say it's surprising from a standpoint of the message that Rick has been giving the people of Iowa," Gidley said. "The quickness of this surge is exciting. I don't want to say it's unexpected, but it's very refreshing."

If he does end up doing well in Iowa, Santorum will then have to demonstrate that he can compete in the other early primary states, especially New Hampshire and South Carolina.  He will have to make up a great deal of ground quickly while also raising enough money to endure a campaign that could grind on for several months.

Santorum insists that his organization is strong in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary election next week, but he's polling at less than 4 percent in the state, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

Still, that's about the same place he was occupying in the Iowa polls just two weeks ago, when virtually the only question he could get reporters to ask him was about when he would quit.

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.