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Santorum hopes NH ground game capitalizes on IA finish

 

BEDFORD, NH -- As Rick Santorum is surging toward a strong finish in Iowa, his campaign believes he is well positioned for a better-than-expected performance in the next contest: the New Hampshire primary.

"We are ready," Santorum state director Nick Pappas told NBC News. "We are not going to be behind the eight ball on this one. It's just a matter of time, we are definitely prepared for what is coming."

Even before he began to rise in the Iowa polls, Santorum was bullish on his chances in the Granite State, where he plans to campaign immediately after the Jan. 3 caucuses. "I guess I feel very confident we are going to do well here, but we're just taking it a day at a time and working hard at it," he told NBC News in Merrimack, back in early December.

Santorum's strategy here is nearly identical to his Iowa ground game: old school retail politics that is all about frequency. His events, like in Iowa, often only garner a handful voters each (and sometimes just this NBC News reporter). But Santorum has built an organization that his campaign thinks will be able to wage a noble fight in the final days ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary.

For starters, Santorum's national campaign director, Mike Biundo, is a New Hampshire political expert who has been involved in local politics for the better part of 20 years. He has directed successful mayoral and congressional campaigns for Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH). Chosen early on to head up Santorum's New Hampshire political action committee, Biundo is also no stranger to presidential campaigns; he worked for Tommy Thompson in 2000 and helped drive Pat Buchanan to a New Hampshire primary victory in 1996.

In October, when Biundo was elevated to national political director and then national campaign manager, it was clear New Hampshire would remain a key state for the shoe-string campaign, and Biundo would help Santorum learn from others' mistakes.

"We talked about what happened with Huckabee in New Hampshire in 2008," Biundo told NBC News, recalling his first conversation with Santorum in December of 2010. "Huckabee was up coming into New Hampshire but without spending a lot of time or groundwork here. So we knew, to bring momentum to South Carolina, we had to put together a very good organization in New Hampshire early -- so if Iowa did what we thought, we would come into New Hampshire with something work with."

"New Hampshire strategy starts with hard work and it can't happen in a week," Biundo added.

The efforts has produced six-person staff that looks very much like the "little engine that could" that Santorum often refers to in Iowa. A small army of faithful volunteers manage daily responsibilities and have put out more campaign road-side signs than any campaign except Mitt Romney. If signs indicated campaign strength, Santorum would place a close second.  The navy blue signs dotted with a white eagle are in every corner of the state.

In addition, Santorum has a modest -- yet pronounced -- base of conservative support. Today, five more state representatives endorsed him, adding to a list that now totals 22. Despite his low polling, Santorum managed to snag rare state senator and county sheriff endorsements, the latter from the same county where Mitt Romney owns a vacation home.

Santorum also hopes to be on the air soon with television and radio ads. He has not aired any spots to date with little money to spare.

On the issues, Santorum's socially conservative credentials have been an unlikely advantage in a state whose Republicans are considered more moderate than those in Iowa. Conservative activists like Karen Testerman -- who previously served Michele Bachmann as a New Hampshire adviser -- have signed on because of his unabashed support of traditional family structures and anti-abortion rights position.

"Voters realize these issues are tied into their pocketbook," state director Pappas said. "Especially abortion, Planned Parenthood taking tax dollars, and broken families. Social issues are attached to the pocket book."

Lastly, Santorum has been a familiar face in New Hampshire, having campaigned in the state as much as Mitt Romney  has, and being second only to Jon Huntsman (who nowadays doesn't campaign anywhere else). And when he's on the ground here, he draws attention to his northeast roots, saying that his home of Pennsylvania "looks a whole lot like Manchester and Nashua."

Pappas, the New Hampshire director, says they aim to lock down 70 to 80% of voters at every event, big or (mostly) small. And Santorum has no problem doing campaign stops with attendees counted on one hand. In the far reaches of north country, Santorum told NBC News he hopes the personal touch will be remembered when voters walk into the voting booth January 10.

Still, Santorum has an enormous uphill battle to do well in New Hampshire. In addition to receiving just single digits in the latest Suffolk/7News poll, the survey finds him with a net-negative image.

"They have the core of a very solid foundation here because they've worked hard over the past year. But ... the big challenge is his image ratings are poor. He is upside down in his favorability ratings, and probably over 80% of the state already has an opinion of him," explained Rich Killion, an unaffiliated political consultant who formerly supported Tim Pawlenty.

Killion expects to see a bump from Santorum's Iowa performance, but believes it's unlikely the candidate can pull off a miraculous victory. National campaign manager Biundo is realistic but hopeful.

"We just have to do better than people expect here, and I think we'll be able to do that," said Biundo.

As for Santorum himself, Biundo says the former two-term Pennsylvania senator believes in his on-the-ground model more than ever and refuses to be anything but positive in the face of an enormous Romney campaign that has largely dominated the state.

"When Iowa ended up lighting the fire, we knew there would be plenty of kindle in New Hampshire to build on the momentum," Biundo said.