OTTUMWA, Iowa - Is Rick Santorum the next non-Romney to emerge from the pack? Could he conceivably win Iowa?
That these are plausible questions tells you all you need to know about the unsettled nature of the Republican presidential contest - particularly here, the state whose caucuses on Jan. 3 have become a bookie's nightmare. At the moment, anyone among the six major candidates has a reasonable chance of coming in first or second, and the contest was becoming less settled as the brief Christmas interlude in campaigning approached.
For example: If libertarian Ron Paul has a chance of triumphing anywhere, it's in Iowa where all his competitors acknowledge the energy of his organization. Establishment pick Mitt Romney's opposition is so badly split that he could conceivably come in first and begin locking up the nomination - or he could emerge deeply scarred by finishing in the bottom tier. The line between success and failure is that thin.
Newt Gingrich seems to be surrendering the lead he briefly held, the target of millions of dollars in negative advertising. He still hopes to use jujitsu to turn all those negative ads in his favor, and at a factory here last week, he denounced Romney as "purely dishonest" for refusing to push his Super PAC - theoretically independent of the campaign but closely connected to Romney's supporters - to stop running anti-Gingrich ads.
Gingrich mocked the attack ads his opponents are running, winning laughter when he declared:
"I think these guys hire consultants who get drunk, sit around, and write stupid ads."
Yet the ads, however stupid, are hurting him. He spoke here at the Al-jon company, which manufactures recycling and compacting equipment, and stood in front of a giant, bright-orange contraption. An Al-jon official explained that the machine could take a large truck "and in two minutes, it cubes that truck into a bundle the size of a refrigerator."
Figuratively speaking, that's what Gingrich's opponents threaten to do to his candidacy.
This explains Santorum's opportunity. If Gingrich's chances depend on uniting the overlapping tea party and evangelical constituencies against Romney, his rivals for conservative hearts - Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. Michele Bachmann - refuse to give way.
Santorum has spent so much time here that, as the former Pennsylvania senator told a gathering at the Royal Amsterdam Hotel in Pella, he can challenge lifelong residents to Iowa trivia contests. Bachmann threatens to shatter even Iowa records for the most campaign events per day. Perry, desperate to salvage his campaign after many verbal missteps, is spending lavishly on television and radio commercials that plant him proudly on the right wing of the right wing.
Santorum has going for him what's been going against him until now:
Having never emerged as a top candidate, he has avoided attacks from his opponents and is the only conservative left unscathed. He has kept his focus on the very religious voters who have played a central role in Iowa Republican caucuses since the Rev. Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign.
Speaking before a banner touting his "Faith, Family and Freedom" tour, Santorum combined detailed proposals - including tax policies aimed at reviving American manufacturing - with harsh attacks on President Obama. But he tries to close the deal with frankly theological reflections.
"I approach every problem in my life through faith and reason," he said. "If your reason is right and your faith is true, you'll end up in the same place."
The bad news and the good news for Santorum came together last week when Family Leader, a conservative Christian group, announced its formal neutrality in the contest (the bad news reflecting the fragmentation of the religious right), even as the organization's CEO, Robert Vander Plaats, and another prominent Iowa Christian conservative, Chuck Hurley, gave Santorum strong personal endorsements. The net effect was to add to the sense that Santorum is on the move, while leaving open the question of whether he is moving fast enough.
Thus the tale of Iowa: a grassroots Republican Party dominated by a right wing that cannot come together; Paul trying to build on a solid core; Gingrich desperate for unity on the right but under a relentless pummeling; Santorum hoping to be the last person standing; and Romney seeking only to survive Iowa in a strong enough position to profit later from dissension among his foes.
For Republicans, it is a campaign in which faith may not be enough, even in the Iowa caucuses, and reason leads more to confusion, perhaps even chaos, than to clarity.