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A Tale of Two Ricks

4:30 AM, Dec 31, 2011 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Marshalltown, Iowa
A few months ago, who would have believed that Gov. Rick Perry would spend his last five days before the Iowa caucus running attacks on Rick Santorum? But there Perry was, in a tiny room upstairs at Doughy Joey’s Peetza Joynt in Waterloo, uncorking a mini stem-winder, assaulting Santorum for his time in Washington: Santorum voted for pork barrel projects and earmarks, including a teapot museum in North Carolina and Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum also voted—multiple times—to raise the debt ceiling. (Perry has an ad up on the air hitting Santorum on these same points.) 

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

It was the kind of performance that reminds you why Perry is still dangerous. He was forceful, direct, and fluid. The crowd of 100 interrupted him with applause. Both before and after the speech, he worked the room with smooth professionalism. Perry hasn’t won every election he’s entered since 1985 by accident.

***

The Buffalo Wild Wings in Ames was packed for Rick Santorum. Sort of. Santorum is feeling his oats with six consecutive polls showing him in double-digits, most of them with him sitting in third. The incoming attacks from Perry confirm that his rise is real. But the raucous crowd at Wild Wings wasn’t really his—Iowa State (which is located a couple miles down the road) is playing Rutgers in the prestigious (not really) New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Cyclones are up early and the locals seem to think that beating on a college football team from New Jersey is something to be celebrated.

Of the couple hundred people in the room, very few seem interested in Santorum. The corner of the bar reserved for Santorum is dominated by a hoard of perhaps 50 reporters. The rest of the room eats, drinks, and makes merry as Iowa State plays on 12 big screens. When Santorum arrives, very few of them even look up at the candidate. Eventually Santorum makes it to a table and a single voter joins him while the reporters mob him and fire questions. Santorum seems unfazed by the media attention his ascendance has drawn.

But it has drawn some unpleasant attention, too. Outside Buffalo Wild Wings green fliers have been left on every single car in the strip center lot attacking Santorum for being a “pro-life fraud.” This charge is nonsense—Santorum has been as stalwart a working pol can be on abortion. (His dismantling of Barbara Boxer on the Senate floor in 1999 is the stuff of legend.)

The group behind the fliers is shadowy. They say they are paid for by “The Iowans for Life.” But that group is not “Iowans for L.I.F.E.”—the state’s prominent pro-life group. When contacted about them, that group’s executive director, Maggie DeWitte, is adamant that they have nothing to do with the attacks. But she isn’t surprised by them. A month ago, “The Iowans for Life” circulated similar fliers attacking Newt Gingrich—right as he was at his peak in the polls. But other than these two bits of pamphleteering, the group seems to be invisible.

***

At the next Santorum event in Marshalltown, I see a young man putting out more of the fliers. When I ask him whom he’s working for, he says he isn’t working for anybody, his group isn’t incorporated, they don’t really have any organization, and that they aren’t involved with any rival campaigns. He will only give his name as “Kevin.” When I ask him which Republicans running are sufficiently pro-life, he says confidently: Ron Paul, and maybe Rick Perry. Draw your own conclusions.

The Marshalltown meeting is at another sports bar and this time about 75 people are packed into a side room just to see the candidate. The bad news is that by the time Santorum arrives, Iowa State is getting clobbered by Rutgers. The bar could pass for a library.

But Santorum is game. He shakes just about every hand in the room and takes pictures with his fans. (The campaign mercifully pulls the Iowa State game off the TVs and substitutes C-SPAN’s live feed of the event. This is perhaps the first time in history that C-SPAN has improved the mood at a sports bar.) And with Iowa State out of the way, Santorum makes his pitch.

Santorum’s presentation comes in three set pieces. The first is an ode to Iowa itself and a recounting of how much time he has spent in the state. “We believed that money didn’t matter in this race. What mattered was talking to Iowans.” He points out that tonight he is holding his 361st town hall meeting in this state.

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