Monday, January 2, 2012

Rick Santorum's "Message from the Heartland"


Reah Adamson of Carlisle, Iowa came with her husband to the Indianola Public Library with one goal: to gauge Rick Santorum's character in person. She headed home with a favorable impression and a photo with the candidate to boot.


After a long year of attending campaign stops that did not draw the kind of media attention that has descended upon Iowa in recent days, many voters at Santorum's events voice a similar sentiment. Each has done their homework on the candidates and their positions, but as Santorum rockets in the polls and looks more and more like the one capable of carrying the bulk of the state's staunch conservative vote, people merely want to share a room with the man and see if he deserves their support. By and large they're leaving convinced.

In the crowded meeting room, Santorum hit all the right notes. He spun his (until recently) relatively overlooked candidacy to good effect. He praised Iowans for vetting him thoroughly over the better part of a year, noting that the exhausting process had ultimately made him a stronger candidate. He articulated a subtle yet positive anti-press message: "Send a message about what the heartland of America wants," Santorum said, "the pundits only listen to themselves."


Two stops later, Santorum arrived at the Pella Public Library to find his campaign event had been moved from a small conference room indoors to the square in front of the building to accommodate a surprisingly large crowd. Although a number of national media reporters, including the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone, overlooked this occurrence and instead focused on the press slightly outnumbering voters at certain campaign stops, crowds are surging at the right time for Santorum. The last minute rearranging that occurred at the Pella Library is precisely the kind of problem his campaign should be happy to have.

In the shadow of the library, with the picturesque town of Pella glowing in the background, Santorum joked about the evolution of his candidacy after fielding what he described as a "difficult" question on Obama's health care reform and coverage of preexisting conditions: "the first time I was asked that question, I'm glad the cameras weren't there," Santorum said. Indeed, Santorum is remarkably skilled at answering challenging questions on the stump, and the sheer number of hours he's spent working crowds of all sizes across Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere have finally paid off.


Even more, Santorum's gentle chiding of the media's new-found interest in his candidacy unpredictably endears members of the press to him. Contrast that with the unpleasant and ungrateful staff of Newt Gingrich, who've regularly made the mistake of scheduling public events in small, chaotic restaurants unfit for the surge of public attention in the run up to the caucus and subsequently ordered certain members of the press to suspend their coverage, and it's clear why Santorum is now considered the darling of the media.

Back in Pella, A young couple—Lance Eysink and Kendi Beyer—stood atop a stone bench in front of the library to catch of glimpse of Santorum through the crowd. The event was the third time Eysink had seen Santorum since a campaign stop in Pleasantville this summer, and it is evident his support had begun to win over Beyer as well, who had yet to see Santorum. While redundancy in campaign visits (Santorum was making his third stops in both Indianola and Pella, towns with populations of less than 15,000 each) can be framed as unnecessary, Eysink's support and his willingness to share it with Beyer testifies to the potentially substantial benefit of Santorum's retail politics.

The previous night in Marshalltown, one of Santorum's field staff began walking up a narrow aisle directly in front of the candidate in the middle of a nationally-televised question-and-answer session with voters. He temporarily obscured the clear shot of the CSPAN cameras, but he wanted to make sure everyone in the room had been handed a sticker and campaign pamphlet before the event ended and the crowd dispersed. What at first seemed like an oblivious misstep, the staffer's persistence in achieving his delegated task ultimately demonstrated the kind of effort and dedication to voters that successful campaigns need here in Iowa in order to be competitive and rub voters the right way.


At the evening's final event in Ottumwa, nearly two hundred voters descended on the Bridge View Center. Compared to the majority of campaign stops I've seen in this election cycle, the gathered crowd was one of the happiest yet. Moments after entering the room and shaking hands with voters along the perimeter of the seating area, Santorum approached Mary LaFrancis, a retired nurse and pro-life activist. LaFrancis has been tirelessly involved in high-profile news events such as the Terry Schiavo case in recent years, and she could hardly contain her excitement. She let Santorum know she "can't wait to see that family in the White House," before he smiled and moved on.


The sea of assembled supporters frequently nodded along with Santorum's talking points and responses to audience questions. "Amens" could be regularly heard in both private whispers and proud public agreement with the candidate's statements. Just when it seemed like the mid-December Iowa field would avoid resembling the 2008 contest, the parallels between Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are emerging.

In the words of Ms. LaFrancis, having treated Iowans with respect and dedication throughout the year, Rick Santorum has a reason to be proud of his efforts.

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