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Will Santorum's long Iowa slog pay off?

Rick Santorum
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) (R) and his wife Karen Santorum (C) follow a bagpiper while greeting people outside the Hilton Coliseum, where Iowans will vote in the Iowa Straw Poll at Iowa State University August 13, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Rick Santorum doesn't do gimmicks.

He doesn't have a catchy slogan that rings in voters' heads like a commercial jingle, he's not trying to sell a new book or movie while ostensibly campaigning, and he doesn't travel on a bus with a giant picture of his face painted on the exterior.

On the day when Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich square off against one another in a "modified Lincoln-Douglas debate" in Houston next month, Santorum likely will be hundreds of miles away, somewhere in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

In a campaign that has seen underdog Republican contenders try to carve unorthodox paths to the White House, Santorum has gone about his campaign the traditional way.

He has spent the better part of the last year doing the unglamorous work of slowly but surely trying to earn the support of the early-state Republicans who often defy national narratives.

According to the Des Moines Register, Santorum has held 164 events in Iowa -- 74 more than Michele Bachmann, his closest competitor in that regard.

From afar, it is difficult to see any discernible momentum for Santorum in Iowa -- the state where he must exceed expectations in order to continue his long-shot candidacy. He has not topped 5 percent in any recent Iowa poll and is not often discussed by national political observers as a viable prospect, even in the Hawkeye State.

But Iowa Republicans have taken notice of the former Pennsylvania senator's efforts in the state and are beginning to spread the word that he has a real chance to reap the rewards of his low-key toils come January.

"I think it is paying off for him," Becky Beach, a veteran Iowa Republican fundraiser who remains unaligned in the race, said of Santorum's efforts. "He's not having huge or flamboyant events, but he's getting people to attend that go to the caucuses. I'm not sure the polls are going to reflect it, but I do think he's certainly getting a lot of second looks."

After a recent hiring spree, Santorum now has nine paid staffers in Iowa and last week unveiled a list of 189 volunteer county organizers who will serve as all-important captains on caucus day.

While other campaigns have focused their relatively limited travel on the state's population centers, Santorum has spent much of his time meeting small groups in far-flung rural enclaves, and he intends to visit all 99 Iowa counties by Jan. 3.

"At this point, we're building the organization in order to get that future windfall," said Santorum's national campaign manager, Mike Biundo. "You may not see an uptick in the polls now, but that's fine with us. The organization we're building and the get-out-the-vote effort is going to serve us well in Iowa."

Biundo espoused confidence that the campaign will have enough resources to compete on caucus day. But as Rick Perry's campaign prepares to launch its first ad blitz in the state, there is reason to wonder whether Santorum will have even the modest financial means that may be required to pull off the massive upset.

In addition to Perry's impending investment, Herman Cain continues to lead in the Iowa polls despite his recent stumbles, Ron Paul has already been airing television ads statewide and has a committed following, and Michele Bachmann is consolidating her dwindling national resources in a last-ditch effort to pull off a surprise in the nation's first voting state.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich finally opened his Iowa headquarters this month, and Mitt Romney maintains a solid base of support among mainline conservatives, despite his decision to downplay Iowa after going all-in in 2008.

Santorum's best bet may be to focus on his reputation as a conservative stalwart on social issues in trying to replicate Mike Huckabee's upstart 2008 caucus victory, but the political climate has changed dramatically from four years ago, even in Iowa.

While Huckabee outshone his GOP competitors by coming across as the most authentic and passionate candidate on hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, it has been far more difficult for Santorum to stand out from his competitors on jobs and the economy.

And in a year when electability -- finding a nominee who can defeat President Obama -- is the most important factor for Republicans, Santorum is hampered by the 18-point drubbing he suffered in 2006, an eye-popping deficit for an incumbent senator, even in a poor political climate.

Still, Santorum's campaign says it is pulling off the balancing act.

"You can walk and chew gum at the same time," Biundo said. "While folks want to talk about the economic issues, and the senator is extremely well-versed in those issues, they also want to talk about social issues, and there's no one in this race more well-versed on social issues than Senator Santorum."

Even if Perry's and Romney's underlying strengths ultimately push them into the top two slots in Iowa, there may indeed be room for Santorum to secure a third ticket out of Iowa.

After all, the nominal front-runner in the state, Herman Cain, has only made sporadic visits and shows few signs of buckling down for a more concerted effort there.

Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa conservative activist, said that he too has heard the Santorum chatter pick up lately, especially after last weekend's Faith and Freedom Coalition forum, in which many of his colleagues said that Santorum and Gingrich had particularly strong showings.

"Everywhere he goes, people email, text, and call me, and tell me how much they love Rick Santorum," Vander Plaats said. "And I think that will materialize into votes in the caucus."

Santorum's next major opportunity to make an impression in front of a large group of conservative Iowa activists may come on Nov. 19, when Vander Plaats' group, The Family Leader, hosts a Frank Luntz-moderated forum in which Santorum and five other GOP candidates (Romney has not committed to attend) will share a stage.

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

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