By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WINTERSET, Iowa -- Beyond the silos, down the street from the Rexall Drug, a few steps from the movie theater and the bakery, and hard by the Ben Franklin five-and-dime sits the Northside Cafe, with its nine wooden booths and its 15 shiny circular stools along the counter.
This noontime the hand-scrawled sign outside speaks of chicken-fried steak, butternut-squash soup, bread pudding, homemade desserts, hot drinks -- and Rick Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, and here, a classic Iowa small town surrounded by fields of political dreams, is just the sort of staging ground Santorum put to good use four years ago.
He pounded down chili in lunch spots like this one in towns like this one, and in many even smaller. He met Iowans in groups of four or five -- hard political work and in violation of every rule of efficiency and economies of scale. But he multiplied those single digits of listeners by hundreds of appearances, building a political force the old-fashioned way.
It worked in 2012, and now Santorum, with the loneliness of the long-distance runner, is trying it again.
But with a difference. His numbers are terrible. There has been a tectonic shift in the geology of Iowa politics. The issues have changed. But Santorum -- energetic in a way Iowans haven't seen since George H.W. Bush proclaimed himself "up for the '80s" in his early 1979 outings, determined in a way that only a man turbocharged with passion can be -- is carrying on. No one with poll ratings in the very low single digits -- he was at 1 percent in the Monmouth University poll this month -- ever campaigned so hard.
Or with such a sense of destiny amid an atmosphere of doom. But he believes that the very polls that show him with an infinitesimal sliver of support for 2016 also showed that about a third of Iowans didn't decide whom to support until the month before the caucuses he won in 2012.
"The biggest difference since 2012 is the number of candidates," he says. "People are having trouble deciding. There's an embarrassment of riches, and I think Iowa will break very, very late. People will watch this demolition derby happen and then make a decision."
Santorum knows that he prevailed last time by visiting all 99 counties here, and he's already completed that task in this round. He believes he can win again if only he keeps to the script.
That script brought him here, to Winterset, hometown of John Wayne, the place where the Delicious apple was developed, the site of many of the fabled covered bridges of Madison County, an early settlement where, according to the Depression-era Federal Writers Project volume on Iowa, the men wore leather leggings to protect them from the snakes that overran the land. (They used whiskey to treat the snakebites, which didn't always work.)
The candidate's plan was to hold a town-meeting-style gathering in the back room of the restaurant, but only three people showed up. Santorum recouped gamely, visiting each of the diners -- a 7-year-old named Brodie helpfully shared his fries -- and then invited a few of them to join him in the front booth. There, fortified by a steaming bowl of John Wayne chili (no beans), he held forth before an audience of seven.
The last time around, Santorum emphasized blue-collar economic themes and harnessed the energy of the religious conservatives who gave the Rev. Pat Robertson a stunning second-place in 1988 and catapulted former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas to an Iowa victory in 2008. Evangelical voters make up half of GOP caucus-goers, according to the Monmouth survey, but in 2016 many of them have been drawn to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and retired surgeon Ben Carson, with some considering Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
So months ago Santorum shifted gears, emphasizing national security issues, a fortuitous adjustment given the terror attacks this autumn in Paris and San Bernardino. This is a repeat of Santorum's pivot in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign, when in late October he delivered an address celebrated in conservative circles and known as the "Gathering Storm" speech. "The war is at our doorsteps," Santorum said in an echo of Winston Churchill's pre-war warnings, "and it is fueled, figuratively and literally, by Islamic fascism."
In jeans and a blue blazer -- no sign of the 2012 trademark sweater vest this lunch hour -- Santorum returned to that very idiom, telling his fellow diners, "If you want someone who is going to win this campaign and, more importantly, is going to confront ISIS in 2017, we will need someone who can stand up to a former secretary of state."
The target there, of course, was Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, but the Santorum emphasis on terrorism and defense also is clearly aimed at Cruz -- and billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump, whose rise has cut into all the other contenders' bases.
"It's not just Santorum," says Charles Laudner, who ferried Santorum around Iowa in his own pickup truck in 2012, but who this time is the top figure in Trump's campaign. "All these candidates -- they're not doing well because people are looking for something different. If you're going to change how business is done, you're going to have to change how politics is done."
And so, when Trump said earlier this month that he wanted to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, Santorum had his own advice, urging those with permits for concealed weapons "to carry (these guns) as often as possible and be prepared." A man sitting around the table here in Winterset interjected: "Amen."
"People are afraid," says Wayne Moyer, a political scientist at Iowa's Grinnell College, who says terrorism "is a major part of the conversation."
Santorum is remembered here well enough that he doesn't have to remind people of the issues he emphasized in 2012. "I have three litmus tests -- family, abortion and guns -- and you pass every one of them," John Reed, a retired lumber salesman, told Santorum in the restaurant. "I'm very loyal." The challenge this time for Santorum is to find 20,000 more loyalists just like him.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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