SAC CITY, Iowa - Rick Santorum should have been holed up in a hotel suite somewhere with a briefing binder and a couple of aides last Thursday, practicing for that night's nationally televised Republican presidential debate.
Instead, he was on his second campaign stop of the day, a town-hall meeting at the Sac County Cattle Co., famous for its 16-ounce rib eye called the Dude.
"Don't look at the polls," Santorum told 22 supporters and potential converts, speaking above the squeaking hinges of the kitchen doors at lunchtime. "Don't pay attention to what the national media are saying, what the pundits are saying. Listen to your heart. Lead. Don't follow."
The former Pennsylvania senator is making his stand ahead of Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, counting on a traditional grassroots approach and a base of support among the Christian conservatives who have dominated the caucuses. Santorum has visited all 99 counties and held 350 events so far, more than any other candidate. His message: Don't settle for a watered-down conservative.
Insiders respect Santorum's ground game and predict he will outperform his standing in the Iowa polls, which has crept up to an average of 7 percent, from 3 percent in early November. That's still well behind Newt Gingrich, who averages 23 percent; Ron Paul, at 19 percent; and Mitt Romney, at 17 percent. Santorum is locked in a battle with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of whom also appeal to evangelicals, for a showing impressive enough to continue to New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Paul and Bachmann are on frantic bus tours of the state, but Santorum has been working the two-lane roads and small towns for months, campaigning the old-fashioned way, the way that Iowans usually reward in the caucuses.
In this cycle, however, the 13 televised debates have nationalized the campaign. The race has been fought in the TV studio green rooms of Washington and New York, particularly on Fox News, as much as on the main streets of Iowa. Some GOP strategists suggest that media buzz may be stronger than the state's traditional focus on retail politics.
"The shoe leather that Santorum has invested in Iowa was the right decision," countered Craig Robinson, a former executive director of the state GOP and editor of the Iowa Republican website. "I think he's in the position to be the dark horse in this race. I wouldn't be surprised if Santorum outperforms the polls by a large margin."
Santorum has won the support of the Rev. Cary Gordon, an evangelical from Sioux City who led the effort to recall three justices of the Iowa Supreme Court last year after the court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage, and of the Rev. Terry Amman of Des Moines. Santorum helped campaign against the judges, an effort that laid the groundwork for his organization in Iowa, and he has strong ties among antiabortion activists.
Santorum's crowds are getting bigger. He drew only three people when he was in Sac City over the summer, for instance; he drew 30 or so later Thursday afternoon to a question-and-answer session at Java Junkies coffee shop in Holstein. His campaign also says that up to 70 percent of those who come to a Santorum event fill out cards committing themselves to caucus and volunteer for him.
"I've been hollering at folks: This thing is so wide open there's a chance to shock the system," said Chuck Laudner, a former chief of staff to Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) who has been organizing northwest Iowa for Santorum. "He's on everybody's short list; people like the guy. I can't even remember the last time somebody asked me an issue question. Now's it's just the viability question - can he win? That's all I get."
Some Iowa Republicans have been skeptical of Santorum because he lost his last election, in 2006, to Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) after two terms in the Senate. As far as Iowa goes, Laudner argues that Santorum has a shot, noting that a recent Des Moines Register poll showed that 60 percent of likely caucus-goers were either undecided or indicated they might change their minds.
"Why you and not Newt?" a woman asked in Holstein, at Java Junkies.
"You're looking for someone you can trust and will do what he says he's going to do," Santorum said. To another questioner, he rejected the contention that Romney is more electable in a general election.
"There's not evidence that Mitt Romney can run as a conservative and win," Santorum said. Romney ran as a liberal Republican for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 and lost, Santorum said, and then was elected governor as a moderate in 2002. He did not even run for reelection in 2006. Since then, Romney has moved to the right, but he lost his try for the Republican presidential nomination nearly four years ago.
By contrast, Santorum often mentions his success winning in the swing state of Pennsylvania, explaining away the loss to Casey as a function of President George W. Bush's unpopularity.
He continues to build his campaign at the grassroots looking to surprise people in two weeks. Influential local leaders have been signing up, bringing their friends, who bring their friends.
On Friday night, Santorum had an audience of 75 people at the Sioux City home of Dave and Linda Holub for a meeting of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Linda Holub, a leader of the state's Concerned Women for America chapter and a member of the Woodbury County GOP committee, decided within the last week to back Santorum.
She had wavered between Santorum and Bachmann but became convinced that Santorum had a more accomplished record in Congress and would be more electable.
"God did it," Linda Holub said, when asked how she made up her mind. She said that many conservative Christians do not trust Gingrich or Romney and are looking for a candidate with a "biblical worldview" who can win.
"I talked to a lot of my Christian friends, and they thought Michele couldn't win because she's a woman," Holub said. "For whatever reason, a man is more acceptable to more people. As an assertive woman I don't like that one bit, but that's the way it is," she said.
Santorum said he had been encouraged that undecided conservative leaders were moving his way.
"It's a good time to be found," he said in an interview. "We have to do better than expectations in Iowa. For us, that's lower than it is for almost everybody else in the field. And that's a good thing."