Rick Santorum tries to make his moment last

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is surrounded by media as he orders food at Buffalo Wild Wings during a campaign stop on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. AP

AMES, IOWA - After being ignored for the vast majority of the Republican presidential campaign, "old steady Eddie" - better known as Rick Santorum - is having his day in the sun.

Two weeks ago, the former two-term Pennsylvania senator used that nickname in describing himself as the guy who girls first ignore in favor of "the guys that are a little better looking, a little flashier, a little more bling."

"But at the end of the evening, old steady Eddie's there," he said. "He's the guy you want to bring home to mom and dad."

On Friday, Santorum was greeted by a media scrum unlike anything he had seen in his presidential campaign up to now. Perhaps 75 reporters crowded into a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, where Santorum had come to shake hands with football fans watching Iowa State in the Pinstripe Bowl - some of whom seemed annoyed by all the fuss. Santorum, who has until now usually attracted just a few reporters at his campaign stops, admitted he was surprised by the turnout.

But asked if he felt vindicated, Santorum said no.

"Look, we anticipated all along this would be a slow, steady race," he told Hotsheet. "The tortoise and the hare, slow and steady, little engine that could - we used a lot of metaphors. And our hope was that we would reach this point at some point and right now we're on the precipice of seeing if that can happen or not."

The sudden interest in Santorum is driven by polls showing him rising to third place in Iowa, behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. He appears to be leading in his battle against Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann for the hearts of the social conservatives who drove Mike Huckabee to a Iowa victory four years ago.

An unapologetic social conservative who strongly opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights, Santorum is a good fit with the Iowa Republican electorate, which is dominated by evangelical and born again voters. One rival campaign tells Hotsheet its internal polls have Santorum in the high teens in Iowa and rising, and it's not inconceivable that he could overtake Romney and Paul for a victory few would have predicted just a week ago. Other than Jon Huntsman, Santorum is the only major candidate who hasn't had at least a brief moment at the top of state or national polls, remaining at the back of the pack as Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, and Gingrich passed by Romney in national polls - only to fall back to earth.

Earlier this month, a number of influential Iowa social conservative activists - including Bob Vander Plaats, Chuck Hurley and Sam Clovis - endorsed Santorum. With no social conservative consensus choice having emerged from the pack, the endorsements were designed to signal to supporters, in the words of Bob Vander Plaats, "if you want an alternative to Romney, this is who we believe you need to get around."

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is surrounded by media as he orders food at Buffalo Wild Wings during a campaign stop on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 in Ames, Iowa.
AP

Vander Plaats, who is recording robo-calls, radio ads and television spots for Santorum, said the endorsements "might have given [Iowa social conservatives] the stamp of approval that it's ok to go here - in fact it'd be good to go here."

He said part of the reason he endorsed Santorum over Perry or Bachmann, who have also been betting their campaigns on winning over Iowa social conservatives, is that the other two had already risen in the polls before falling back to single digits.

"It's awfully hard to get two shots at the apple in one campaign cycle," he said.

Santorum, who has essentially been camped out in Iowa (with regular visits to New Hamphire) since the fall, told Hotsheet the endorsements helped convince Iowans that "our campaign was one that could be a winning campaign."

"And that's what most people were concerned about," he said. "We knew we had a lot of support among a lot of people but they weren't saying Santorum because they were told over and over again by the national press that I didn't have a chance to win."

John Brabender, Santorum's longtime senior strategist and media consultant, told CBS News Friday that online donations to the cash-poor candidate have been 300-400 percent higher this week. He said the campaign is focusing on telling voters Santorum is the most electable candidate in the field, in part by arguing that he won two Senate elections in a blue state. (Santorum was blown out in his bid for a third term in 2006.)

If Santorum does well in Iowa, the campaign's focus will shift to the New Hampshire primary on January 10. The Granite State, where voters lean moderate and Libertarian (and independents can vote in the GOP primary), seems like a bad match with Santorum, who is polling at just three percent in the state despite more than 60 visits since June. Brabender acknowledged that Santorum lacks the sort of organization in New Hampshire that Romney, the clear frontrunner in state polls, has built up.

If Santorum can survive New Hampshire, the playing field shifts to the friendlier ground of South Carolina, a state where he could do well - particularly if Bachmann and/or Perry are no longer in the race. Vander Plaats suggested social conservatives around the nation are eager for a candidate to rally around, particularly since Romney - who he says "we just don't trust" - looks like the candidate most likely to take the nomination.

Santorum, meanwhile, is hoping his "steady Eddie" approach will continue to pay dividends.

"We had confidence from the very beginning that as people focused on all the candidates and looked at their strengths and weaknesses that we would do well," he said Friday. "And that's exactly what's happening."

With reporting from CBS News Senior Producer Caroline Horn.

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