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Rick Santorum fails to connect in Iowa, but he keeps the faith

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OSCEOLA, Iowa » One of two things is certain to happen in the next few weeks to Rick Santorum, after making more than 300 campaign stops in Iowa and draining his personal bank account. Either his campaign will finally catch fire (and there are signs he may be gaining some ground). Or he will secure the distinction as the sole major Republican candidate to never have been among the Iowa front-runners this year (outside of Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who did not really try).

In a contest dominated by candidate appearances that avoid close contact with journalists and skeptical audiences, Santorum stands out. Even at the tiny gatherings with a handful of voters that still make up a good deal of his stump-speech tour — though his crowds have been getting bigger — he typically talks for an hour or more, exhausting the questions, and sometimes, the questioners.

In some ways, Santorum is an ideal Republican candidate for Iowa. A longtime opponent of abortion rights and gay marriage, he has the credentials to appeal to the evangelical voters who make up a substantial portion of caucusgoers. He has a compelling personal story, including the genetic ailment of a young daughter, that he wraps into a broader narrative about how the nation’s fiscal and economic ills are the consequences of a breakdown of marriage and family. And he was a two-term senator from Pennsylvania, a state that the Republicans hope to pry from Democrats next year.

Despite all but living in Iowa this fall, he has struggled to widely connect with voters as the Jan. 3 caucuses near. It might have been different, some Republican activists say, if Santorum had some of the magnetism or catchy proposals that propelled his opponents at various times in the race, like Rick Perry’s swagger or Herman Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan.

And while polls show that many Iowa Republicans remain open to changing their minds, time is running out for Santorum. Even his best news in months — an endorsement this week by Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative leader here — was muddled by controversy over whether Vander Plaats had been seeking contributions from the candidates that he considered endorsing, which he denied.

In a deeper sense, Santorum has what one top Iowa Republican described as a "minivan" problem, which he himself admits: He does not have the political equivalent of sex appeal. And it does matter, even to social conservatives, who have flirted with a string of more charismatic candidates like Perry, Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Few of Santorum’s Iowa supporters are as admiring as Tom Steen, a Republican activist in Indianola who praises him for his consistent message and his effort to respond to every question by "digging hard, back to his core" of faith and family regardless of the political consequences.

That is a quality that social conservatives value deeply, he said, but it does not always translate immediately into support.

"He doesn’t have that charismatic, initial likability to him," Steen said.

"Is he electable? I don’t know," he added. "But I’m not going to let that bother me. He probably has few friends, but I bet you the friends he has are extremely close friends."

That he often finds common ground with social conservatives is easy to see, especially among small crowds in small towns. There always seems to be someone — a home-schooling mother in a three-person audience in Sigourney, Iowa, for example — who responds to one of Santorum’s personal stories.

He uses a high school metaphor to elaborate on his lack of political seductiveness. "I always tell the story about girls coming into the dance hall, walking past us and taking a turn with some other better-looking guys, and then at the end of the evening there’s old steady Eddie, who’s not flashy, but he’s the guy you know you want to take home to Mom and Dad."

Yet that can sell short some of his moments on the campaign trail, where he can be surprisingly skillful, even a little mischievous, in lacerating his opponents’ proposals. When a supporter of Rep. Ron Paul challenged him to get rid of the Federal Reserve, Santorum deftly turned the question back, asking what should replace it.

"The Treasury," the Paul supporter replied, tentatively.

Santorum pounced: "I’m a little concerned about this president overseeing the money supply in this country. It would be incredibly politicized, much more than it is today." (The Paul campaign says the power should rest with Congress.)

Santorum is exasperated by how he says the news media ignores him, something he has gradually turned into one of his more successful stump lines.

Steve Grubbs, who was Cain’s state chairman, said he sees Santorum gaining late momentum. But he questioned whether the news media was to blame for his lack of traction.

"You’ve got to earn that newsworthy moment," said Grubbs, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "Part of succeeding when you are not the front-runner is having an issue packaged in such a way that captures the imagination of voters."

 

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