POLITICS

Rick Santorum Waits His Turn To Ride The GOP Primary Carousel

ANAMOSA, Iowa -- The only Republican presidential candidate yet to have his moment in the spotlight could not tear away from an elderly woman on Wednesday who was advising him about home therapies for common illnesses, such as "onion juice."

Rick Santorum, who had just conducted an hour-long town hall meeting in Anamosa with 14 local residents, tried to move on by saying he'd consult a doctor. The woman gushed: "Oh you don't need to!"

Finally, the former senator from Pennsylvania excused himself and turned to answer a reporter's question about whether he'll ever catch a wave like the one former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is riding right now.

"These things come in four week increments," Santorum told The Huffington Post. "Newt is finishing up week one. Herman [Cain] had about a month. [Rick] Perry had about a month. Michele [Bachmann] had about a month. The timing may be just about right for us."

It sounds delusional just from looking at the polls, where Santorum remains stuck at around two percent, to think that he could become the hot candidate. But if anybody is positioning himself to be the last candidate standing in the race to provide conservatives an alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney, it is in fact Santorum, the 53-year old father of seven.

If Gingrich wilts under the pressure of a full public vetting of his past, Santorum may be the beneficiary. He has traveled to all 99 counties in Iowa and is continuing to move around the state at a breakneck pace. He also recently landed an experienced Iowa hand by the name of Chuck Laudner to coordinate his efforts in the Hawkeye State.

Santorum has been campaigning harder, by far, than any of the other candidates. He began a swing on Tuesday that will take him to 27 events in 23 Iowa cities or towns by next Monday. On Friday, for example, he'll begin with a 7:30 a.m. meet and greet at a West Burlington cafe, followed by town hall meetings at 10 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., in four separate towns.

In an interview Wednesday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad gave only passing mention to Gingrich, but raved about Santorum.

"Santorum is going to do a lot better than the polls would indicate," Branstad told HuffPost.

"It's a wide open race. Gingrich got off to a terrible start but he's kinda getting a second wind here. Obviously Cain did well but he's been hurt somewhat by the accusations that have been made against him. Perry is trying to come back. Bachmann came off a great start but is now trying to make a comeback. Rick Santorum might be the one to watch," the governor said.

"He has been to every county in Iowa. He is building an organization here. I think he's making a good impression and doing a lot better," Branstad continued. "He's doing it the old-fashioned way that has worked in Iowa: building a strong ground game and going everywhere. He's doing it kind of step-by-step. He's getting a lot of people on board throughout the state."

Of course, simply checking off the 99-county box all by itself guarantees little. Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, visited all the counties ahead of the 2008 caucuses but finished with just two percent of the vote. Yet former Sen. John Edwards also made it to every county, and that yielded him a 30 percent finish that was second only to Barack Obama's 38 percent.

But the addition of Laudner, a 46-year old state operative who has been called "one of the best connected conservative activists in the state," is a sign that Santorum is actually building a network that could move votes his way on Jan. 3.

Additionally, Laudner's presence could be an early indication that social conservatives will consolidate around Santorum. Craig Robinson, a former state GOP official who now writes a political blog, wrote that Laudner -- a former chief of staff to influential Rep. Steve King, who is also connected to all of the significant camps within Iowa's universe of social conservatives –- "will now travel all across the state in an effort to activate his network for Santorum."

Laudner attended a meeting of pastors in Des Moines on Tuesday sponsored by the Iowa Renewal Project, a religious organization that avoids media exposure and does not allow reporters into its meetings. Perry and Gingrich spoke to the group, and Laudner was there to gauge whether conservatives in Iowa are determined to avoid splintering between five or six candidates.

"They're trying to figure out if there's a candidate who will best represent their issues and their cause," Laudner told HuffPost. "They've been splintered before but they seem to be moving in a singular direction."

Laudner was confident that Iowa conservatives will throw their weight behind one candidate to take Romney on, rather than scattering their votes between Gingrich, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Santorum. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) also looks like he could get substantially more than the 10 percent he received in 2008. A Bloomberg poll out this week showed Paul at 19 percent among likely caucus goers, with Cain at 20 percent, Romney at 18 percent, and Gingrich at 17 percent.

Conservatives "will coalesce because they'll want to send a message," Laudner said Monday night at a dinner in Davenport, on the eastern edge of the state, where Perry spoke to about 300 Republicans.

Steve Scheffler, one of the most influential social conservative organizers in the state, told HuffPost at the dinner that he is hearing "more and more people talking" about an organized effort by pastors and political leaders to throw their support behind one candidate.

"I've heard more and more talk about it over the last few weeks," Scheffler said. But he also said there is no unanimity on who will be the conservative standard bearer, and he is currently skeptical that any consensus will emerge.

"I don't see it happening right now," Scheffler said.

Romney's state steering committee co-chair, Brian Kennedy, was dismissive of talk that conservative leaders could move large numbers of voters to one candidate or another.

"The leadership follow the followers, not vice versa. So if you think that there's some great summit where they say we're going to direct the flock one way or another, it doesn't work that way," Kennedy said.

Still, there was noticeable angst among Republican voters who spoke with HuffPost at events for Perry, Cain, Santorum and Gingrich on Monday and Tuesday. Most of them mentioned Romney, Gingrich and Cain as the top three candidates they were considering. Perry and Santorum were noticeably absent from people's conversations.

Some said they liked Gingrich, but others were quick to point out his flaws.

"Part of Newt's downfall is he's too connected to the Republican party. He'd want to cut deals," said Andy Kay, 48, a garden center and floral business owner in Davenport. "The conservatives are going to be split. There's not a Huckabee in there right now."

Mike Steffenson, 73, who owns a manufacturing company in Davenport, said Gingrich will be hampered by his past infidelities. Gingrich's third wife, Callista, was a Capitol Hill staffer when she and Gingrich -- then in Congress and married to his second wife -- began an extramarital affair.

"Newt would be the right guy if he didn't have the John Edwards baggage," Steffenson said, referencing Edwards' own unfaithfulness to his now deceased wife, Elizabeth.

But attitudes toward Romney were decidedly unenthusiastic.

"I honestly wish there was a candidate that most conservatives could rally around," said Garry Piotrowski, a production supervisor at a dairy plant in Dubuque. Piotrowski showed up to see Cain speak on Tuesday morning, but said the former Godfather's Pizza CEO had "no chance."

Piotrowski sounded like he was resigned to Romney winning the nomination.

He signed, "I just hope if he gets the nomination he picks a conservative as a running mate."

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