WAUKEE, Iowa – Just one day before presidential balloting begins, the quest by conservative Republicans for an alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney has pulled yet another upstart from the bottom of the pack: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose faith-and-family pitch may have caught fire in Iowa at the perfect time.
From churches to television chat shows Sunday, White House hopefuls barreled into the final hours of campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, a race suddenly scrambled by Santorum’s late surge.
After splintering among several candidates, the Christian conservative voters who helped power Mike Huckabee to a surprise win four years ago showed signs of coalescing behind Santorum, positioning him for what would be a surprisingly strong finish in the first electoral test of the field challenging for the GOP nomination.
Reflecting his newfound strength, captured in a Des Moines Register poll, Santorum faced sharp criticism Sunday from some rivals and a new level of scrutiny from reporters.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Santorum defended his support for congressional earmarks – saying it was his job in Congress to care for constituents – as well as his endorsement of Romney’s 2008 White House bid. Santorum said he made a “political judgment” that the former Massachusetts governor was the best alternative to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who eventually won the nomination to the consternation of many social conservatives.
Some Iowa Republicans seemed to be making a similar calculation, encouraged by the poll in Iowa’s dominant newspaper.
The survey showed a three-way contest among Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and a rapidly rising Santorum; his momentum convinced many that the former senator presented the best opportunity to stop the comparatively moderate Romney.
“I didn’t think (Santorum) had a chance, but he’s spent the most time in Iowa and he’s worked his butt off,” said Dennis Patterson, 65, pausing after the first of two morning services at Point of Grace, a megachurch in Waukee, a Des Moines suburb.
Patterson said he loves Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has competed fiercely for the hearts and votes of Iowa’s evangelical community. But her flailing campaign – Bachmann sank from 22 percent in June to 7 percent in the latest Register survey – pushed him to Santorum. “You’d like to make your vote count,” he said.
The entire field of GOP hopefuls – all but former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is focused on winning New Hampshire – has virtually camped out in Iowa the past two weeks and for most, New Year’s was just another workday.
Romney greeted voters at a diner in Atlantic, saying mostly kind things about Santorum. Asked by reporters about their differences, Romney said Santorum was a “good guy” and a friend, and noted his support for Romney’s 2008 White House run.
But he did contrast his business background with Santorum’s lengthy political resume. “I think the people of this country recognize with our economy as the major issue we face right now, it would be helpful to have someone who understands the economy firsthand, who’s spent the bulk of his career working the private sector,” Romney said.
In Sioux City, a buoyant Santorum told supporters that he is ready for a wave of negative attacks now that he has broken into Iowa’s top tier. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said. “I’ve been in tough races. I’ve had the national media crawling up anywhere they could crawl. … It’s not going to be fun.”
Despite that warning, Santorum’s final sprint had the air of a victory lap as he conducted what he said was his 372nd town hall meeting in Iowa. Most of that time he was at or near the bottom of opinion polls.
Speaking to more than 150 people jammed into the Daily Grind coffee shop in this conservative center in western Iowa, Santorum stopped short of predicting a win, but said the Iowa caucuses will “send a shock wave across this country.”
Across the state, Newt Gingrich took aim at Romney and the political action committee that has financed millions of dollars in attack ads, swamping the former House speaker’s campaign. “Romney would buy the election if he could,” Gingrich told reporters after attending Mass in Des Moines.
He took just a gentle jab at Santorum. “I think I am a more experienced national leader with a greater ability to change Washington,” Gingrich said later in Marshalltown.
Bachmann, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” pointed out that Santorum was soundly defeated the last time he ran for office, losing his 2006 re-election bid by a humiliating 17 points. “In a liberal state like Minnesota, I won,” she added.
Later, Bachmann took to the pulpit at Oskaloosa’s charismatic evangelical Jubilee Family Church, where she shared in sometimes urgent cadence the story of her personal salvation at 16, and spoke of her favorite biblical hero, an Old Testament figure named Jonathan.
In a clear reference to her own uphill fight, she spoke of Jonathan’s battlefield triumph over the Philistines despite overwhelming odds. “What he did was step out in faith,” Bachmann said. “That’s something this church knows something about.”
Afterward, Bachmann said she was not worried about losing evangelical support to Santorum. Standing on the sidewalk outside, in a whipping cold wind, Bachmann said she put her faith in Iowans to vote their hearts. “I am the best person to take on Barack Obama and defeat him because I will have a clear conscience when I stand on the debate stage,” Bachmann said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has also competed vigorously for the support of social conservatives, took a day off the campaign trail but still managed to get in a few shots at the field’s newest target. “He’s got a spending problem; he’s got an earmark problem; he voted eight times to raise the debt ceiling,” Perry said of Santorum on “Fox News Sunday.”
Paul took the weekend off.