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Iowa: Santorum Surges, Romney Stable, Paul Dropping

7:01 PM, Dec 29, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Rick Perry’s presidential campaign released a tough new ad Thursday targeting Rick Santorum and his history of supporting earmarks in Congress. Why is Perry attacking a candidate who has been mired in single digits in Iowa despite living there for most of the past several months?

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Simple, Santorum is surging. A CNN poll of registered Iowa Republicans released Wednesday puts Santorum in third place with 16 percent of the vote – his highest share yet. It’s not an outlier. In fact, data from Perry’s internal daily tracking polling shows that the Santorum surge is real and that he has the potential to continue gaining in the days before voters gather for the caucuses next Tuesday.

The polling was described to TWS by a strategist for a rival campaign and confirmed by a source familiar with the numbers. The four important takeaways from Perry’s polling: Mitt Romney is “pulling away” from a group of four second-tier candidates bunched together behind him; Ron Paul’s numbers have dropped steadily in the aftermath of the attention given his troubling newsletters; Santorum’s rise has coincided with the erosion of support for Newt Gingrich; and Michele Bachmann is in danger of becoming a non-factor in the race.

Almost all of this is good news for Mitt Romney, who announced in recent days a busy schedule of Iowa campaigning and whose campaign let it be known that he would remain overnight in Iowa after the caucuses – both indications that the Romney camp is increasingly confident of a win in Iowa next week. And Romney, in an appearance in Iowa on Thursday, said only a win in Iowa would constitute a real victory.

One number Team Romney is watching carefully is Bachmann’s. According to a senior Iowa Republican, Romney’s team is concerned that if her support dips below 8-10 percent of the vote – where she’s been hanging in recent weeks – Santorum could present Romney with a real challenge. And further erosion for Bachmann could happen. On Wednesday, her campaign chairman defected to Ron Paul’s campaign and now a Super Pac that was once supporting her candidacy is backing Romney.

Some Iowans are not likely to be surprised by the Santorum rise.

“I think Santorum is being underestimated in the polls,” Tom Mitchell of Sioux City told me in Iowa earlier this month. Mitchell caucused for Romney in 2008 and says he would back Santorum if he thought he could win. “I go to a lot of events, and his support out there is a lot stronger than you’re seeing in the polls.”

Santorum has spent lots of time in conservative northwest Iowa, where voters have had the chance to meet him and shake his hand. Doc Zortman, also from Sioux City, met Santorum at a fundraiser for Republican congressman Steve King. Zortman was impressed when former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, appearing at the same event, praised Santorum’s work on national security. “Bolton went right down the list and talked about all of the things Santorum had done. He’s not talking about abortion, he’s not talking about marriage – none of the social issues – but all of the things that Rick Santorum had accomplished on national security. Then, when Rick Santorum came up and said, ‘How would you like John Bolton to be secretary of state?’ – I think he got a standing ovation. There were cheesecakes that fell to the floor when people stood up clapping hands!”

In some ways, it may be as much what Santorum lacks as what he has that is drawing Iowans to him in the days before the caucuses.

“Rick Santorum has the least baggage,” says Zortman. “He can take Barack Obama to the carpet without Obama coming back and saying – but you, but you. There’s no ‘but yous’ with Rick Santorum.”

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