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Rick Santorum Finally Gets His Media Moment

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ANKENY, Iowa -- Rick Santorum, perhaps accustomed to TV talking heads dismissing his candidacy, told voters Saturday not to listen to the pundits.

But it's the pundits who are now listening to him.

Political reporters and commentators have been flocking to Santorum events in recent days, a reaction to the former Pennsylvania senator's rise in the polls and growing expectations of a third place or better finish in Tuesday's Iowa Caucus. On a few occasions, reporters have outnumbered voters at Santorum events, including his Saturday afternoon stops at the Indianola Public Library and Knoxville's National Spring Car Hall of Fame.

Santorum is even drawing major figures in political media, a sign that the campaign is now being taken more seriously by the punditocracy. MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Politico editor-in-chief John Harris joined the reporter scrum as Santorum made his pitch to a dozen or so voters seated amid racing cars, trophies and autographed helmets at the Knoxville museum. Other high-profile political writers, like Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz and New York Times columnist David Brooks, were on hand when the candidate next arrived at the Pella Library.

Santorum's surge -- or #Santorumentum -- has also been the topic du jour among political reporters camped out at the Des Moines Marriott bar or over dinner at temporary journalist hangouts like Lucca and 801 Chop House. And all that Santorum chatter at night inevitably prompts more journalists to check out the candidate the next day rather than former frontrunners like Texas Governor Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Santorum has also benefited the past couple days because he's been the most accessible top-tier candidate in Iowa. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trekked back and forth to New Hampshire and, while in Iowa, held events further from downtown Des Moines. Ron Paul took the weekend off.

On Friday, reporters flocked to a Santorum campaign stop at an Ames sports bar, frustrating many Iowa State fans trying to watch the Pinstripe Bowl game and waitresses carrying beers and Buffalo wings out to paying customers.

The chaotic scene in Ames shows the dramatic shift in media interest, especially considering that Santorum -- while doing the most traditional, retail politicking across Iowa -- has received less coverage than any other candidate in the 2012 race, according to a study by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism. By contrast, Herman Cain -- a catch-phrase-wielding, former pizza executive who ran an untraditional campaign that more closely resembled a book tour or cable host tryout -- received the most.

Media coverage has been schizophrenic the past few months, with reporters only really digging in when polls indicate -- and the consensus of pundits agree -- that the candidate may have a shot at the nomination. The earlier non-Romney frontrunners all endured short, sustained bursts of media scrutiny that tested, or sometimes deflated, their campaigns. Ron Paul, too, began facing a barrage of questions about racist and homophobic newsletters written under his name decades ago, an issue that came up in the 2008 race but got little traction because he wasn't viewed by journalists as a contender.

There's one major benefit to a late surge for Santorum: reporters are too busy scrambling around Iowa these days to spend hours digging into his Congressional record or past statements. Santorum, however, insists he can withstand the scrutiny if it comes.

"Iowa can determine what's going to make the person successful," Santorum said at an evening rally in Ottumwa. I have energy and ideas, and I'm willing to face the tough questions and do the tough interviews, be available to reporters."

It remains to be seen whether the "surge" is real or whether it's simply media hype and the pack mentality of reporters and pundits -- having already moved on from previous Iowa frontrunners -- to seek out a new narrative. But for now, Santorum seems confident enough that the surge is real to put on his media critic hat and knock those pundits who wrote off his campaign in exchange for the non-Romney flavor of the moment.

After Santorum spoke to voters Saturday, reporters and photographers swarmed around him as he headed to the back of the museum for a scheduled, on-camera interview with CNN's Jim Acosta.

"If there's anything we've learned from this process, that those kinds of predictions have been uniformly wrong," Santorum said, when asked if Romney would "unstoppable" with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. "We've been through the process, well 'it's a two-person race' and you can go through 'it's a two person race' every six weeks and with a different two people."

"The pundit class has just blown it in this election," he continued. "Why? Because it's not like a typical election. And I don't think no matter what happens here today, this is not going to be over in two states."

The press pack, digital recorders extended, stood silent nearby Santorum for about eight minutes as Acosta continued peppering the candidate with questions. But reporters, who rarely trekked to Santorum's previous 360-plus events around Iowa, appeared to being growing impatient, waiting for an opportunity to grill the candidate.

"I'll wrap it up so the rest of the press doesn't kill me," Acosta said, before launching into a few more questions of his own.

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