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Lacking momentum, Santorum vies for attention

Since the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has frequently touted the new momentum his fourth-place finish gave his campaign.

Last week his Iowa staff moved into a new office space, announcing in a press release that the location would “better accommodate growing staff and volunteer needs.” The same is true for his New Hampshire team, which has moved into Tim Pawlenty’s old headquarters in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

But the Santorum campaign’s new headquarters in Iowa are actually smaller than the space they moved from. And even after they announced the new office in New Hampshire, a large “TimPawlenty.com” sign still hung from the roof, dwarfing the Santorum yard signs that were plopped in the grass below.

Santorum heads into the fall struggling to compete with his better-funded opponents. And unlike the straw poll, the caucuses will have on the ballot another candidate with plenty of momentum right now, Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- which the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows as the front-runner in the GOP presidential race.

But more so than money or support, the Santorum campaign feels one of its biggest challenges has been getting attention. It’s the reason why September -- with three presidential debates this month – is so important for the former Pennsylvania senator. It is also why his team knows they will have to travel more miles and make more campaign stops than any other candidate.

The debates are one of the few opportunities for Santorum to get in front of a national crowd. Jamie Johnson, Santorum’s Iowa coalitions director, is drawing comparisons to a former candidate who succeeded in Iowa despite being outspent in the Hawkeye State. “If you look at how [former presidential candidate Mike] Huckabee went through the debate process four years ago, you’ll see a pattern that’s similar to how Santorum is doing,” Johnson said. “You keep plodding along and you keep getting hits when you come to the batters box, and people say, ‘You know what, the guy’s solid.’ “   

But Huckabee came out of the 2007 straw poll as a solidified top-tier candidate with his second-place finish. And the former Baptist pastor had the important Evangelical voters of Iowa well in hand by the time the caucuses came, with his stiffest competition coming from Mitt Romney, who is Mormon. Santorum, a Catholic who touts his strong social values, faces some of his stiffest competition in Iowa from Protestant candidates like Michele Bachmann and Perry who share many of his staunch social conservative beliefs.

“The problem for him is that everyone from the Republican side sings from the same hymnal,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

Santorum has also feels he has been excluded from opportunities to differentiate his views from his fellow Republican candidates.  After the Fox News debate in Ames, Iowa on August 11, he complained about not getting as much time as other candidates, and that the questions directed to him were focused on social issues, not the economy.  He felt the same way after the MSNBC/Politico debate, telling Chris Matthews in the spin room, “I just figured I needed to get some airtime somewhere tonight." Santorum’s low polling also left him out of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) Palmetto Freedom Forum on Monday, an event five other candidates attended.

So the strategy for his presidential bid going forward will rely on the same heavy travel schedule that allowed him to claim success in the straw poll, according to his Iowa state director Cody Brown.  Racking up the miles in early primary states is how Santorum will combat his the lack of attention.

In the weeks leading up to the straw poll, Santorum visited 60 counties in Iowa, holding almost 110 town hall events throughout the state. Brown described “The Ring of Fire” strategy -- an imaginary radius the campaign drew around Ames that extended to the farthest corners of the state where they hoped to draw supporters from.

“Our problem is getting him in front of enough people. It’s not making the sale, it’s making sure we contact enough people so they get to see him, and hear from him,” Brown said. “Obviously his travel schedule becomes a key part of our strategy.”

Since the straw poll, Santorum has been campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina and fundraising in his home state of Pennsylvania. Brown makes clear they are running a national campaign. But also acknowledges Santorum will need to finish higher in the caucuses than he did the straw poll to have an impact after Iowa.

It’s why the three full-time staffers who work for Santorum in the Hawkeye state are gearing up for the candidates return, and why members of Santorum’s family are making plans to be in the state most of October. 

It’s also why their new headquarters in Iowa, though smaller, has more space for volunteers. “What a campaign like ours needs to do is, we need to leverage our volunteer base -- free labor,” said Brown. “When you have an underfunded campaign, the people who really believe in the senator are the people who will be able to overcome adversity when it happens,” he added.    

Though his poll numbers have been low and his impact on the race limited, political observers in Iowa feel Santorum’s brand of retail politics can resonate in a state that places so much value in face time with voters. Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist and communications director for Gov. Terry Brandstad (R-IA), said both the number of campaign stops and trips to the outer reaches of the state will be rewarded when the caucuses are held on a winter night at beginning of next year.

“Rick Santorum has put together a campaign that actually knows how to compete in Iowa,” said Albrecht.

Still, the presence of Perry and -- now to a lesser extent -- Bachmann, who appeal to the same values voters, stand firmly in the way.