LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
One week from today, Iowa voters show up for meetings across the state. Their caucuses mark the first time voters formally choose a preference for the Republican presidential nomination.
WERTHEIMER: They choose after a year in which surveys showed Republicans trying on one candidate after another. Ron Paul is the latest to gain support in Iowa. Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have all had their moments, and are now riding buses around the state.
INSKEEP: So is Mitt Romney, who's still widely considered the favorite for the nomination. But no candidate has spent more time in Iowa than former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. On the day after Christmas, Santorum went hunting in Iowa. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Joining Rick Santorum at Doc's Hunt Club west of Des Moines was his teenage son John, who got his first kill using a new shotgun he received for Christmas. Santorum said his son actually shot better than he did, but he admitted to bagging at least four birds.
RICK SANTORUM: I'm always very conservative when I do this. I'm talking about what I would consider to be clean kills. I think I had four clean, clean kills. And then I had some group kills.
ALLEN: It was also a clean photo op aimed squarely at Iowa's many hunters and gun owners. Santorum - wearing a hunters orange NRA cap - talked about the need to nominate federal judges who would uphold Second Amendment rights.
Some noted that another social conservative, Mike Huckabee, went pheasant hunting shortly before winning the last Iowa caucuses in 2008. But although Santorum had a good day hunting, one thing he didn't bag was the endorsement of Steve King, Iowa's most outspoken conservative congressman. King went along with Santorum on the hunt and was at a news availability afterwards. But when asked if he was ready to endorse Rick Santorum, he said no.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING: You know, I came here to shoot some pheasants today with my friend Rick Santorum. And we're having a great, great day. So I'm going to deliberate on all of this. I've got a few days yet before a decision has to be made.
ALLEN: Santorum shrugged it off, saying he's gotten more than his share of endorsements already, and that more may be coming. But Santorum was also reminded yesterday that endorsements can come with controversy.
Last week, the former Pennsylvania senator won a coveted endorsement from Bob Vander Plaats, a leading Christian conservative. Within a few hours, the Des Moines Register was reporting that as part of the endorsement conversation with Santorum, Vander Plaats asked for help in raising money to promote the endorsement. Santorum says Vander Plaats didn't ask him directly for money.
BOB VANDER PLAATS: He was just describing what he wanted to do with his endorsement. And I'm tickled to death that he would do more than just a press conference.
ALLEN: Santorum said yesterday he's spent so much time running in Iowa, he's practically a resident. But for all that, he's still well back in the pack, jostling with Bachman and Perry for social conservative votes. Santorum says, in his view, there are actually three Iowa contests.
SANTORUM: There's the Libertarian primary, which Ron Paul's going to win. And then you've got the moderate primary, which Gingrich and Romney are scrumming for. And you've got three folks who are running as strong conservatives. You know, I think if we win that primary, we're in very good shape as the non-Newt Romney.
ALLEN: As Santorum himself says, a good showing in Iowa is all about managing expectations.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Des Moines.
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