Despite Heavy Campaigning, Santorum Trails In Polls

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has visited all 99 counties in Iowa in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But his grassroots efforts don't seem to have yielded dividends in fundraising or public support.

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The centerpiece of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain's campaign has been his 9-9-9 tax plan. Former Pennsylvania senator and Cain rival, Rick Santorum, has been focused on a different number, 99. That's how many counties there are in Iowa. And this past week, Santorum reached his goal of visiting every last one of them.

But Iowa Public Radio's Kate Wells reports, it's not clear yet if the achievement will make a difference with voters.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: For Rick Santorum, typical campaign stops aren't packed halls or sold-out dinners. They're more likely to be a dozen voters and a couple boxes of donuts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator Santorum, please give us some remarks.

RICK SANTORUM: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WELLS: It's early morning in downtown Pella, Iowa, one of the many small-town stops Santorum says set his campaign apart.

SANTORUM: I don't know of any other candidate for president - I know, not this time, that's hit 99 counties. Heck, I think I'm not too sure all the candidates combined have been to Iowa 99 times, but we've worked, obviously, harder than anybody out there...

WELLS: All 99 counties visited and yet, just five percent of Iowa Republicans back Santorum, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll. With his ultra-conservative stances on abortion and same sex marriage, he's trying to remind voters of another social conservative.

SANTORUM: You know, four years ago, Mike Huckabee was 17 points out of the lead and ended up winning the Iowa caucuses. Just coincidentally, in the same Des Moines Register poll that was just released this weekend, we happen to be 17 points behind and so we feel like we're definitely within striking range and...

WELLS: But there's just one problem with Santorum's formula, says voter Helen Kind (ph).

HELEN KIND: How come they didn't win?

WELLS: When asked if the most important thing in a candidate is the ability to beat President Obama, Kind says that's correct.

KIND: I don't think he's electable. Honestly, I don't think he's got a national pull that will pull him to the forefront.

WELLS: Now, stop me if you've heard this one before, but it's the economy voters care about this election. Even Iowa's evangelicals, says Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Santorum is doing everything that seems to be textbook for winning the Iowa caucuses. On the other hand, there's an old military saying that generals always prepare to fight the last war. And we may be politically in a new kind of war because of the economic circumstances. That's what has everybody anguished and upset and concerned now.

WELLS: Without a 9-9-9 plan or a Texas jobs miracle or proven mass media appeal, Santorum just can't seem to build momentum, so he's trying to carve a niche as the keeper of the conservative flame, launching a series of speeches on social values.

SANTORUM: People have said to me, why are you out here talking about moral/cultural issues when the economy is the real issue? Because moral/cultural issues are the economy. They do tie together. They're one in the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WELLS: Santorum has nabbed a few endorsements from Iowa activists who like that he's kept those issues front and center. And his best bet may be to build last resort support from Iowans who think former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, is just too moderate.

As he signs a book at the library in Albia, Santorum says not having had a bump in the polls yet could be a good thing.

SANTORUM: You know, I also look at this as maybe just a blessing that, you know, everybody else has had their moment and had a lot of attention paid to them and they've seen their numbers go up and they've seen their numbers go down. Maybe our numbers will go up just at the right time. That's what we're hoping for.

WELLS: Just the right time would be immediately before the Iowa caucuses, so with two months to go until then, Santorum will have to continue a very long slog for a very slim shot.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Iowa.

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