BOONE, Iowa—You know you’ve arrived as a candidate in this state when you can’t talk to actual voters. At the Reising Sun Cafe in Polk City, Iowa, on Monday, it was all madness and jostle as the press from all over the world swarmed to cover the latest hot candidate, Rick Santorum. Fussy foreign journalists whistled in winter jackets, tripods poked unmentionable places, and heavy cameras swung with a threat of contusion.*
Voters were trampled, if they could get in to see the candidate at all. One woman, an actual undecided Iowan still weighing Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry, never made it through the press horde in the doorway.
This kind of pack journalism that mobs the latest surge candidate is just what Santorum used to rail against from his position at the bottom of the polls. Not anymore. He was in Polk City to delight in being the Flavor of the Week.
The attention is crucial because it gives Santorum a chance to broadcast his message of how ignored he has been. For months, his campaign was a solitary struggle. There was no boom microphone within 50 feet of his head. Republican voters have been looking for a candidate of conviction, someone willing to do what he believes regardless of the opposition. Romney has not been able to make that sale. Santorum can by simply pointing to the last few months. He talks some about his record in the Senate, but it is his 379 campaign stops that show he is willing to endure abuse and a long lonely struggle for something he believes.
Santorum respected the Iowa system of retail campaigning and now he wants credit for it. He flatters voters and their special role of testing candidates in face-to-face meetings. If Santorum wins, argues his supporter Chuck Laudner before every appearance, it will allow the Iowa system to survive: “Lots of forces are trying to take this away from us.” A vote for Santorum is a vote for the caucus and its special place in the world.
Santorum is a stylistically more passionate candidate than Romney. That’s not difficult, but it helps when you’re selling the idea of conviction. He makes lots of proclamations that tap into voter anger with Washington and its calculating ways.
“Your words must mean something, or don’t say them.”
“Let’s grow up and quit being like children.”
“I’d rather lose an election than give up on principles.”
Conviction is great, but wouldn’t Iowa voters be throwing away their votes on Santorum? Santorum is strident, which might not appeal to independent voters in November. He lost his last election by nearly 20 points. He doesn’t have money or an organization. Republicans consistently view Romney as the candidate who can beat Barack Obama: 48 percent said so in the latest Des Moines Register poll, but only 3 percent said that of Santorum.
These arguments are all roughly true, but they don’t appear to sway the Santorum voters. “I think Romney is more electable than Santorum,” said Bill Yewell, one of the actual Iowans uncrushed by the press pack in Perry, Iowa, “But I’m just not confident in Romney.”
If Iowa voters focus on electability rather than conviction, they will be doing exactly what they say they hate about Washington politicians. That was the conflict among Republicans during the latest battle over the payroll tax. Tea Party Republicans didn’t want to compromise even though the party was being harmed politically. They came to Washington to act on conviction, they said, not to do the political thing.
Santorum makes this pitch explicitly. “Do not settle for less than what America needs to transform this country,” he says, without using Romney’s name but referring to him as plainly as if he held up his portrait. “You are going to be told that you have to settle for someone who isn’t quite as strong in order for us to win.”
There’s a catch though. In 2008, Santorum supported Mitt Romney based on just the kind of calculation he’s asking voters to eschew this time. “There were other better candidates,” he admits, but he thought Romney had the best chance of stopping John McCain. This contradiction wasn’t lost on one voter who asked about it at an event. Santorum didn’t have a great answer. If only a CNN cameraman had elbowed that guy away at the door.
Correction, Jan. 2, 2012: Because of an editing error, this article originally misspelled the name of Reising Sun Cafe. (Return to the corrected sentence.)