MUSCATINE, Iowa - For Rick Santorum, it was the paparazzi moment that looked as if it would never come. Cameras and correspondents awaited him Thursday at an event in eastern Iowa in numbers that his campaign had rarely, if ever, seen. Even the presidential candidate seemed a bit taken aback.
"Enjoying the circus?" a reporter asked.
"This is the first day," the former Pennsylvania senator replied.
Nobody has worked harder or spent more time traveling Iowa's rural highways and visiting its hamlets than Santorum, and until this week, no one had less to show for it. But with polls indicating that he is rising in the minds of voters likely to attend Tuesday's Iowa Republican caucuses, there's a growing sense that if any candidate is going to attract Iowa's wide swath of evangelicals, it will be Santorum.
Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was able to unify social conservatives and win the state over Mitt Romney, but this time, support from those voters has splintered among Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. But with Bachmann fading fast, Perry struggling to recover from debate missteps, and Gingrich faltering under the weight of negative attacks, Santorum appears to have a chance to finish in the top tier and move on to other states.
He has watched as other contenders have basked in the media glow when he has largely been an afterthought. He was consigned to the far end of debate stages and pleaded for airtime. But all along, he has insisted that his incessant travels in Iowa would pay off.
"We've got a game plan in place," he said Thursday. "We've stuck to it despite people saying it's not working."
Santorum's late surge has been fueled by endorsements from key evangelical leaders and a growing sense here that social conservatives must rally around one candidate to compete with Romney and Ron Paul, the favorites in Tuesday's caucuses.
"Santorum has been in some cases unfairly ignored while he's truly campaigned the hardest, in the sense of a retail Iowa campaign," said Cary Gordon, a pastor from Sioux City. "He's been willing to spend the time that's necessary to engender the trust of the voters."
Karen Fesler, a Santorum volunteer from Coralville, said the campaign had a surge of support from social conservatives in recent weeks. "We've picked up a lot of the Huckabee people," Fesler said, adding that Iowa homeschoolers and antiabortion activists were also coalescing behind the candidate.
She was confident that Santorum's work crisscrossing the state would benefit him. "In a lot of those rural counties, he's the only candidate they've ever seen," she said.
Later Thursday, an overflow crowd greeted Santorum at a restaurant along the Mississippi River in Muscatine - and he seemed delighted and newly energized. Aides said crowds had steadily been growing larger over the last week.
"We'll turn this country around, and Iowa will be the spark that did it," he said.
As the fortunes of his conservative rivals have sagged, Santorum has also been boosted by his aggressive stance on Iran. He has long warned of the threat Iran would pose to Israel if it were to build a nuclear weapon, and he hasn't been afraid to attack Paul on national security.
Santorum blasted the Texas congressman again in Muscatine. Paul "would take every ship we have and bring it into port," he said, and suggested that Paul would be ineffective as president: "He's passed one bill in 20 years."
Santorum was interviewed on Fox News and CNN and booked for Sunday's Meet the Press. And Perry ripped him for requesting earmarks as a senator - something Santorum later defended.
Santorum, 53, served two House terms before being elected to the Senate in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution. He lasted two terms before being routed by Democrat Bob Casey in 2006.
"Losing is not the worst thing that can happen to you," he said. "Not standing up for what you believe in is the worst thing. If I am going to lose, I'm going to lose by my own terms."
He resisted the suggestion that he was a candidate merely for social conservatives, highlighting his national-security credentials and emphasizing his role in overhauling welfare while a senator. "We've got a pretty broad message," he said.
But inevitably, talk returned to matters of faith and family. Asked about his opposition to same-sex marriage, Santorum, a Catholic and father of seven, restated his support for traditional unions and blasted liberals who "want to drive faith and the conclusions that come from faith out of the public square and out of the public law."