JOHNSTON, Iowa - Running on a shoestring budget and boosted by the backing of evangelical Christians, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania thanked Iowa last night for taking the first step toward “taking back this country.’’
Throughout the evening, Santorum traded the the lead with former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in a contest that seesawed past midnight with no declared winner.
A jubilant Santorum greeted hundreds of supporters gathered last night at the Stoney Creek Inn to cheer his unforeseen rise over the past several days to vie with Romney as the winner of the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest.
“Game on,’’ Santorum said during the victory party. “I’ve survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God. . . . I offer a public thanks to God.’’ He thanked Iowans for standing up and not compromising.
From the very beginning, Santorum believed that his year-plus slog through Iowa’s 99 counties would make all the difference to his success here, where voters take seriously the tradition of retail politics - being able to look politicians in the eye, shake their hands, and pepper them with questions to assess their character.
So Santorum went, one county and one town hall at a time, eschewing the luxury motor coaches other candidates have chartered to instead be driven around in a Dodge pickup truck. He often spoke to no more than a handful of people. Sometimes it was just him and one other - until recently, when voters came by the dozens, then hundreds, to hear the sweater-vest clad father of seven as he spiked in the polls.
His campaign also included seasoned advisers, including some who had worked for Mike Huckabee in his winning 2008 campaign in Iowa.
But will Santorum’s momentum last beyond Iowa as the campaign moves immediately to New Hampshire and South Carolina? Skeptics question whether his campaign has the finances or the organization to compete with Romney and US Representative Ron Paul of Texas. He will also have to contend with former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah, who has skipped Iowa in favor of a heavy New Hampshire presence.
Santorum acknowledged on the day before the caucus that his next campaign finance report would show that he has little money.
Michael Biundo, Santorum’s national political director, said last night that fund-raising has tripled in the last week but declined to specify the amount. “We have enough resources to compete,’’ Biundo said. He said he is confident the campaign will do well in New Hampshire, which Santorum has visited 29 times, and South Carolina, where he’s been 26 times – more than any other candidate, Biundo said.
“It’s all about shoe leather,’’ said Biundo, adding that Santorum’s message on bringing manufacturing and family values back will play particularly well to the Catholics of New Hampshire. “We came a long way in just a couple of weeks. The crowds are growing. Momentum’s building. This has always been the little engine that could campaign.’’
At his final campaign event yesterday afternoon at the Des Moines Christian School in Urbandale, Santorum tapped into his evangelical base, urging hundreds of students, parents, and community members to choose him because he is best equipped to return the country to the Christian family values that have eroded.
“You can’t have a strong economy unless you have strong families,’’ said Santorum, flanked by his wife, Karen, and six of their children as the audience applauded. He advocated that middle and high school students do three things to stay out of poverty: graduate from high school, work, and get married before having children.
His last-minute appeal resonated with the adult members of the audience, many of whom said they were undecided until recent days, when they settled on Santorum.
“He just shares a lot of the same values I have, especially with the whole family thing, and with marriage and religion,’’ said Amanda Shindelar, a 23-year-old stay at home mother from West Des Moines, who heard Santorum live for the first time and was moved to attend her first caucus last night.
Santorum’s rapid rise seemed improbable in August. During the Ames Straw Poll, the first test of organization for Republican presidential hopefuls, the hoards of voters descending upon other candidates’ tents were not as readily drawn to the low-key candidate’s homespun campaign area where his children handed out samples of peach preserve made from the fruit trees dotting their yard.
Santorum placed fourth – behind US Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Paul, and former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who has dropped out of the race - winning less than 10 percent of votes cast.
In the weeks before Christmas, Santorum tied for last place among GOP contenders competing in Iowa, with polls showing his support at just 6 percent among likely Republican caucus goers. In debates he was often relegated to the sidelines, begging for time - though he did make his mark by attacking Paul’s foreign policy views as dangerous.
Ever the underdog while virtually all of his competitors saw their moments in the sun - however briefly - Santorum cast himself as the family values candidate, repeatedly urging Iowans to ignore the pundits and lead by choosing him.
Santorum, a devout Catholic who squeezes in Sunday Mass on the trail, holds great appeal among Christian conservatives, who, according to last night’s Fox News entrance polls, made up 58 percent of caucusgoers. Of those who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, 32 percent favored Santorum.
Santorum will head today to New Hampshire, where the latest poll by Suffolk University has him hovering at 5 percent, in hopes that the momentum from his caucus showing will increase his chances. He will campaign in South Carolina on Sunday for a day before returning to the Granite State for the home stretch of the first-in-the-nation primary.