Senator Rick Santorum's last-minute surge in Iowa just days before the first 2012 caucuses has some people scratching theirs heads, wondering how a candidate who was polling in the single digits only weeks ago is now widely predicted to finish in the top three in tonight's GOP contest.
As the socially conservative wing of the Republican party has continued to shop around for an alternative to Governor Mitt Romney, they've browsed through a number of candidates -- Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Governor Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich -- before quickly losing interest and moving on. The wheel seems to have stopped at Santorum, who has jumped in recent polls -- this week's Des Moines Register poll showed him at 15 percent overall but as high as 22 percent on the last night of polling, compared to single digits in earlier polls. What accounts for this late surge? His blue-collar populist appeal on issues like manufacturing and jobs, combined with his focus on morality and preserving the traditional family, has struck a chord with conservative Iowa voters. Santorum has spent much of the past year traveling the state and holding over 375 town hall meetings, highlighting his wife and their seven children as well as his religious beliefs.
But Santorum's surge may not end up representing a real threat to Romney, who has a far larger war chest and a more sophisticated ground operation in the upcoming primary states. In fact, Romney advisors have scoffed that Santorum's appearances in all 99 counties across the state amount to little more than what looks like an Iowa gubernatorial campaign -- one that cannot be replicated in other states.
Voters on the ground here use words like 'competent' and 'electable' when talking about Romney. In the Des Moines Register poll, 48 percent of respondents thought Romney was the strongest general election candidate versus only seven percent for Santorum. So while Santorum appeals to social conservatives as the 'anti-Romney' and may have a strong showing in tonight's caucus results, it's possible that voters will continue to see Romney as the Republican with the best chance of defeating President Obama -- and will fall in line behind him coming out of Iowa.