Rick Santorum aims to prove staying power

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, on CBS' "Face the Nation," Dec. 11, 2011. CBS

Rick Santorum
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, center, joined by wife Karen, waves to supporters at the finish of his speech at his Iowa caucus victory party, Jan. 3, 2012, in Johnston, Iowa.
AP

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics

JOHNSTON, Iowa - As votes from a few remaining precincts were still being tallied more than three hours after the Iowa caucuses had closed, Rick Santorum realized that he did not have to wait any longer to declare victory.

Not only that, he didn't even have to say that he won.

"Game on," the former Pennsylvania senator told his crowd of supporters at his Iowa campaign party as he beamed onstage while flanked by his wife and a half-dozen of his children.

Santorum's message was clear: whether or not he squeaked out a victory over Mitt Romney, the night would largely belong to him.

Having spent the better part of the last year grinding out an intense schedule of little-noticed speeches to small crowds across Iowa without cracking single-digits in the polls, Santorum's showing here culminated a campaign triumph for the former Pennsylvania senator that appeared inconceivable just days ago.

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Santorum appeared emotional as he thanked God, his family and the state of Iowa for lifting his once quixotic candidacy into one that will now share center stage for the time being.

"People have asked me how I've done this sitting back in the polls and not getting a whole lot of attention paid to us?" Santorum said. "We've been told by so many people there's another candidate in this race who is running rather close to me tonight who's a better chance."

With Rick Perry retreating to Texas to consider ending his presidential bid after a deflating fifth-place finish and Michele Bachmann potentially set to do the same after coming in sixth place, Santorum moved immediately to try to position himself as the most viable remaining conservative alternative to Romney.

In a speech that was light on soaring rhetoric but heavy on emphasizing his humble roots, Santorum laid out his broad vision for the country, as he hopes a broader audience of Republican voters nationwide will begin to tune into his campaign.

"I believe foundationally, while the economy is in horrible condition, while our country is not as safe as it was, and while threats are rising around the world, while the state of our culture under this administration continues to decline with the values that are unlike the values that built this country, that the essential issue in this race is freedom," he said.

Santorum's unlikely success in Iowa demonstrated both the importance of peaking at just the right moment and also that old-fashioned retail campaigning did matter in this race after all.

Shortly after 11 p.m., with Santorum's lead over Romney standing at just 37 voters, the crowd at Santorum's caucus night party broke into a spontaneous rendition of "God Bless America."

Earlier in the evening, as part of a last-minute pitch at one of the four caucus sites he visited in Johnston, Iowa, Santorum trumpeted his bona fides on cultural issues, telling the standing-room-only crowd, "We need a president who shares our values."

Despite his emphasis on cultural issues, Santorum also previewed a renewed area of focus on jobs, as the campaign shifts to New Hampshire, where he will tout his working-class bona fides to try to put a dent in Romney's massive lead there.

"We need someone who has a vision to get this economy going not just for some, but for all, including small towns in rural America and blue-collar America," Santorum said.

In a clear effort to demonstrate that he will not become the one-state candidate that many pundits assume he is fated to be, Santorum was quick to tell the crowd at his victory party about the next step in his campaign.

"We're off to New Hampshire because the message I shared with you tonight is not an Iowa or a South Carolina message," he said.

Throughout the campaign, Santorum has insisted that there was "plenty of tinder" in New Hampshire and beyond, should his campaign catch fire in Iowa. And now it has done just that.

Despite polling only in the low single digits in New Hampshire, Santorum is aiming to exceed expectations there on the heels of his Iowa victory.

Santorum plans to spend almost the entire week leading up to the New Hampshire primary campaigning in the state and will only make a quick detour to show his face in South Carolina on Sunday.

Santorum has campaigned often in New Hampshire over the past year, holding as many events in the state as Romney, and his campaign infrastructure there is existent, if not nearly as formidable as Romney's.

Mike Biundo, Santorum's campaign manager, is a New Hampshire resident, and the Pennsylvania senator's yard signs have been visible around the state for months.

New Hampshire will remain an uphill climb for Santorum by almost any measure, and he will have to quickly show that he can raise the money and build the national organization that will be required to compete with Romney over the long haul.

But with his performance in Iowa, Santorum has already demonstrated his ability to surpass just about everyone's expectations.

He has done so, however, without facing withering attacks from Romney and the rest of the Republican field.

Santorum's next test will be to prove that he can stand up to the heat that is inevitably coming his way.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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