Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum (Reuters)

The Rick Santorum moment that was never supposed to happen

Don't look now, but he's reeling in major endorsements in Iowa, where the right is scrambling for a new anti-Mitt


Steve Kornacki
December 21, 2011 5:56PM (UTC)

As a candidate for president, Rick Santorum has been a sad figure.

He came to the race seemingly out of boredom with his post-Senate life and tainted by a 20-point defeat in Pennsylvania in 2006. And he's been the marginal man in the field, unwilling to mimic Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich by exploiting the personal brand-building potential of a national campaign, but also unable to gain the respect and support of "serious" candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, despite earnestly adhering to all of the traditional principles of grassroots-networking. While Newt was cruising the Greek isles and Cain was preoccupied with a book tour, Santorum was methodically visiting all 99 counties in Iowa -- and yet it was Newt and Cain (and everyone else not named Santorum) who enjoyed surges in polling.

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Against this backdrop, the events of the past week represent the closest to a real breakthrough that Santorum has come. Consider what's gone right for him in that time:

  • Peak Newt was apparently attained, especially in Iowa, where his polling freefall creates an potential opening for a new conservative alternative to Romney to emerge. This is especially critical for Santorum, who has made Iowa his make-or-break state.
  • A parade of influential Iowa evangelical leaders has stepped forward to support him. In 2008, 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelical Christians. That number may have been inflated by the Christian right's enthusiasm for Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, but religious conservatives still hold disproportionate sway in the caucuses -- and many of their leaders have been particularly eager to unite behind an alternative to Romney. With his extramarital baggage, Gingrich was apparently too much for them, and with time running out before the January 3 caucuses, some big names are turning to Santorum. Over the weekend, Albert Calaway, a retired pastor who heads a group called Truth, Values, and Leadership endorsed Santorum and offered harsh critiques of his opponents. On Tuesday, Bob Vander Plaats, perhaps the single most influential evangelical leader in the state, added his support, as did Chuck Hurley, a key Vander Plaats ally. Several other leaders with influence among Iowa's Christian right have also come out for Santorum recently.
  • Finally, some good polling news: A PPP survey released late Sunday night showed Santorum at 10 percent in Iowa, his first time in double-digits in the state. Bachmann and Perry were tied with him. The leader was Ron Paul with 23 percent, followed by Romney at 20 and a fading Gingrich at 14.
  • Democrats are taking note, with one of the leading Obama-aligned Super PACs, American Bridge, suddenly deciding to assign a video tracker to follow Santorum around. The group's spokesman told ABC News that they made the move after sensing momentum for Santorum.

It's probably too much to call this a surge, since Santorum's numbers really aren't moving nationally or in any other early state. And there's even a chance the PPP result is a mirage, with a new survey from the (less reputable) Insider Advantage giving him just three percent in the state.

But it's fair to say that Santorum is now on surge watch, with Gingrich's Iowa collapse once again throwing the GOP race into turmoil and with influential voices in the state now throwing their weight behind Santorum. The loyalties of Iowa evangelical voters are divided, and there's a chance they'll remain so through January 3 -- an ideal scenario for Romney or Ron Paul. But if Santorum can continue to reel in significant endorsements, it could encourage soft supporters of Bachmann and Perry (and even Paul, who has made some inroads with religious voters) to rally around him as the default anti-Romney choice.

This is why Vander Plaats apparently appealed directly to Bachmann to drop out and endorse Santorum, while Hurley suggested that she and Perry "team up" with Santorum:

“Why can’t the top three or so pro-family candidates come together and figure out who has the talents for president, who has the talents for other roles?” Hurley said today, exactly two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. “And those people could quickly…vault into first place and win the caucuses and win the nomination.”

And so we've reached the point, just two weeks before the caucuses, where there's actually a plausible scenario for Rick Santorum to break through and post an impressive showing, maybe even win. This says something about him and his persistence, sure, but mainly it's an indictment of the basic competence of his rivals. After all, this moment is only possible because Iowa Republicans have already cycled through Cain, Bachmann, Perry, Cain (again), and Gingrich. And even now, they're just as likely to give Perry or Bachmann another whirl as they are to line up with Santorum.

There really does seem to be something about Santorum that makes Republicans want to say, "Thanks, but no thanks." So if they end up saying yes to him on January 3, it will say more about what his opponents did wrong than what Santorum did right.

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Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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