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Suddenly, Santorum gets the attention in Iowa

By James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau –

MUSCATINE, Iowa — For Rick Santorum, it was the paparazzi moment that looked like it would never come. Cameras and correspondents awaited him Thursday at an event in eastern Iowa in numbers that had rarely, if ever, been seen by his campaign. Even the presidential candidate seemed a bit taken aback.

“Enjoying the circus?” a reporter asked. “This is the first day,” Santorum replied.

Nobody has worked harder or spent more time traveling Iowa’s rural highways and visiting its hamlets than Santorum, and until this week, no one had less to show for it. But with polls indicating that Santorum is rising in the minds of voters likely to attend next week’s caucuses, there’s a growing sense that if any candidate is going to attract Iowa’s wide swath of evangelicals, it will be the former Pennsylvania senator.

Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was able to unify social conservatives and win the state over Mitt Romney, but this time, support from those voters has splintered among Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. But with Bachmann fading fast, Perry struggling to recover from his debate missteps and Gingrich faltering under the weight of negative attacks, Santorum appears to have a chance to finish among the top tier and move on to other states.

He’s watched as other contenders have basked in the media glow when he’s largely been an afterthought. He was consigned to the far end of debate stage,s and pleaded for airtime. But all along, he has insisted that his incessant travels in Iowa, his hundreds of events, would pay off — and now he might be right.

“We’ve got a game plan in place,” Santorum said Thursday. “We’ve stuck to it despite people saying it’s not working.”

Santorum’s late surge has been fueled by endorsements from key evangelical leaders — including Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Family Leader advocacy group — and a growing sense here that social conservatives must rally around one candidate to compete with Romney and Ron Paul, the favorites in Tuesday’s caucuses.

“Santorum has been in some cases unfairly ignored while he’s truly campaigned the hardest, in the sense of a retail Iowa campaign,” said Cary Gordon, a pastor from Sioux City. “He’s been willing to spend the time that’s necessary to engender the trust of the voters.”

Karen Fesler, a Santorum volunteer from Coralville, said the campaign has a surge of support from social conservatives in recent weeks.

“We’ve picked up a lot of the Huckabee people,” Fesler said, adding that Iowa home-schoolers and anti-abortion activists were also coalescing behind the candidate.

She was confident that Santorum’s work crisscrossing the state would benefit him. “In a lot of those rural counties, he’s the only candidate they’ve ever seen,” she said.

As the fortunes of his conservative rivals have sagged, Santorum has also been boosted by his aggressive stance on Iran. He has long warned of the threat Iran would pose to Israel if it were to build a nuclear weapon, and he hasn’t been afraid to attack Paul on the issue of national security.

Santorum blasted the Texas congressman again in Muscatine. Paul “would take every ship we have and bring it into port,” he said, and suggested that Paul would be ineffective as president. “He’s passed one bill in 20 years.”

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