Rick Santorum is back where he began his career in politics, running like crazy in an election no one thinks he can win. As a 32-year-old long-shot Republican candidate in 1990, Santorum wore out a lot of shoe leather knocking on doors (more than 20,000, he says, between him and his wife) in a Democratic congressional district outside of Pittsburgh. He won, to the surprise of many, and four years later he scored another surprising upset, against Democratic incumbent senator Harris Wofford.

At age 53, Santorum has brought that same quixotic tenacity to the Iowa Republican presidential caucus. “We’ve done 349 town hall meeting-type events and been to every county in the state and spent not just 10 minutes, but an hour or two,” he told me during a December 21 phone interview. Santorum’s hard work, as well as a string of solid debate performances, may finally be paying off, according to two polls from mid-December.

Both Rasmussen Reports and Public Policy Polling showed Santorum moving in the right direction in a very fluid race at just the right time, jumping from single digits to 10 percent. Santorum is still in the second tier in Iowa, with Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, just behind a sinking Newt Gingrich, as Ron Paul and Mitt Romney vie for first place in the low 20s. But Santorum could get another much-needed bump: Both polls were conducted before he was endorsed by two influential Iowa social conservatives, Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley.

“[Santorum] is the one candidate in the race who hasn’t caught his wave yet,” says Vander Plaats, who served as Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign chairman and now heads the Family Leader, a coalition of socially conservative groups. “We believe he’s going to catch his wave. And we believe he’s the one candidate who can withstand the scrutiny of being on top.”

Vander Plaats, who lost the 2010 Iowa GOP gubernatorial primary by 9 points, urged Santorum to stay in the race after coming in fourth at the Ames straw poll in August. “I just saw him as a guy like Mike Huckabee,” he says.

The Santorum 2012 campaign certainly bears some resemblance to the Huckabee 2008 campaign. Like the former Arkansas governor, Santorum has been the most outspoken candidate on the issues of marriage and the right to life. And Santorum’s economic message, like Huckabee’s, is attuned to the working class. He draws attention to the decline of manu-facturing jobs in America and has proposed eliminating the corporate income tax on manufacturers.

Santorum has also proposed a pro-growth personal income tax reform with two rates of 10 percent and 28 percent (Paul Ryan’s fiscal Roadmap proposes 10 percent and 25 percent). But even when the topic is the economy, Santorum finds a way to bring the conversation back to social issues.

“If you really want to solve the economy, there’s two ways we know we can prevent poverty,” he says. “One is that everybody graduates from high school. And everybody gets married before they have children. You do that, there will be virtually no poverty in America,” he says. “There’s things we can do [to encourage education and marriage]—I wrote a whole book about it called It Takes a Family.”

There are, of course, some notable differences between Huckabee and Santorum. Huckabee is an evangelical, Santorum a Catholic. It was a little bit surprising that leading Iowa evangelicals like Vander Plaats backed Santorum over evangelicals Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. But Vander Plaats says their religious difference is just not an issue. “Although Rick and I attend different churches, I see him as a deeply committed brother in Christ.” Santorum says that at “an occasional town hall meeting, someone will come up, very, very, very rarely” with concerns or questions about his faith.

More important, the two men have different personalities. Huckabee was charismatic and quick with a quip. Santorum is combative and earnest. Asked on the Tonight Show for a word to describe Santorum, Herman Cain said “stressed.”

But Santorum’s seriousness redounds to his credit when it comes to foreign policy. The former third-ranking Republican in the Senate has spent a lot of time thinking about America’s role in the world. And during the debates, he’s been a hawk’s hawk, sparring with Ron Paul over the Iranian threat. “I think Michele Bachmann understates how dangerous Ron Paul would be,” says Santorum. “Many conservatives would fear literally for their safety if Ron Paul would get in there to work with liberal Democrats to gut the Defense Department, to pull back every forward-deployed troop all over the world.”

Santorum also laces into Paul on the issue of abortion. “Ron Paul would do absolutely nothing at the federal level to advance the pro-life cause,” he says. “He can say he’s pro-life. John Kerry can say he’s against abortion. But, again, if you don’t do anything to stop it, then you’re not really against abortion, are you?”

So why are some Iowa voters worried that they’d be throwing their vote away by backing Santorum? “Why do they think I can’t win? It’s because, no offense, all of these pundits are out there saying I can’t win,” he says. “It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

There are reasons why pundits say Santorum can’t win. One is that he’s washed up—having lost his Senate seat by 18 points to Bob Casey Jr. in 2006. Santorum counters that he won two of his three statewide races as a conservative running in Democratic Pennsylvania—first in the 1994 Republican revolution and again in 2000, when he won by 6 points while George W. Bush was losing the state by 5 points.

“Mitt Romney never ran a race as a conservative and won anything,” says Santorum. The only reason Romney didn’t lose in 2006 is that he chose not to run for reelection in Massachusetts. That year was poisonous for Republicans because of disapproval of Bush, the Iraq war, and Republican scandals. Santorum was up against the son of sainted former governor Bob Casey, and there was no way any Republican could have won.

Then there are concerns that Santorum would be a polarizing figure in a general election because of his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. He says that the GOP nominee will be painted as an extremist on those issues no matter who it is. But the left and the media do reserve a special level of hatred for Santorum, because he’s a true believer—former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey once remarked that the name Santorum is “Latin for a—hole”—who is willing to defend his position in detail, perhaps too much detail sometimes.

Another criticism of Santorum is that he was tarnished by the Bush years. Santorum says he has a few regrets, such as voting for the No Child Left Behind Act. Still, it’s much harder to attack him as insufficiently conservative than Romney or Paul.

Now in the closing days of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum may be cash-strapped, but he isn’t slowing down. Every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day he plans to be out on the campaign trail in Iowa, making his case to anyone who will listen. He just might surprise the world again.

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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