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Can Rick Santorum Save Retail Politics? Can Rick Santorum Save Retail Politics?

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Campaign 2012

Can Rick Santorum Save Retail Politics?

The former Pennsylvania senator looks for a return on his 100 days in Iowa.

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Rick Santorum speaks during a town hall in Fort Dodge, Iowa, this week.(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was hitting his 358th town hall when he learned that his support in Iowa had finally broken into the double-digits.

After spending a whopping 100 days in the state, traversing all 99 counties, Santorum managed to more than triple his support from 5 percent in a CNN/Time/ORC poll in early December to 16 percent just days before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

 

In the final days of his Iowa campaign, Santorum is making the closing argument both for his candidacy and for the good old-fashioned way of presidential politicking: hitting the early states often and hard, interacting with voters, and answering questions at town halls.

“You can’t buy Iowa. You've got to go out and earn Iowa. You've got to meet with Iowans,” Santorum told of a crowd of about 100 gathered at a café in Dubuque on Wednesday afternoon. “Iowans are not going to just defer … their judgment to national pundits or national polls.”

In a cycle that has been marked primarily by battles on the national debate stage and on the airwaves, it’s hard to discount the notion that retail politics is dead. Consider that after spending all of 14 days in Iowa and downplaying expectations in the state, Mitt Romney topped the CNN/Time/ORC poll with 25 percent and attracted large, enthusiastic crowds on his three-day bus tour through the state. The former Massachusetts governor made sure to do his lip service, too.

 

“One of the reasons that Iowa's first is because the people here pay attention.  You know what’s going on in the political process, you get a chance to see the different candidates, take a measure of the person,” Romney said to a jam-packed crowd of 125 patrons who woke up at dawn on Thursday morning to see him at J’s Homestyle Cooking in Cedar Falls (another 40 listened from an overflow tent after the diner reached capacity). “I appreciate the fact that you pay this kind of attention and get up in the morning to take a look at one more candidate.”

But Romney’s infrequent forays to Iowa are a clear contrast with Santorum and candidates of the past. In 2007, then-Sen. Christopher Dodd moved his family to Iowa and enrolled his daughter in kindergarten there. Those days appear to be gone, to the dismay of Iowans who still believe that looking a candidate in the eye counts for something. But others say there are more pressing concerns in this day and age than if a candidate puts in face time. And that includes Santorum supporters.

Doug Renteria of Burlington has been following Santorum throughout his career and is impressed by his record on social and economic issues. “Not really,” he answered when asked if it was important for him to meet his chosen candidate in the flesh. “It was more issues-focused for me.”

The same held true for Tom Damgaard, 57, of Cedar Falls. He is leaning toward Romney based on his credentials and takes a sympathetic view of the way candidates must manage their time. “There’s a lot of other states to visit and a lot of other ground to cover,” he said.

 

Like many voters this cycle, Damgaard’s gotten much of his information not by observing the candidates first-hand but by keeping an eye on the news and watching the debates. Iowans may be more attuned to the political process than voters in other states, but they have jobs to go to and families to raise. They also have cable.

Josh Wilkinson, 29, a high school teacher from Cedar Falls, said meeting a candidate is a good way to finalize an impression or decision—but it’s certainly not the make-or-break element of Iowa political mythology. “It does help and it is valuable, but we’re not going to be swayed by whether we shook his hand or not," Wilkinson said.

On the other end of the spectrum are people like Kim Smith of Cedar Rapids, who has seen her candidate, Santorum, half a dozen times. Although this is the first time Smith will be voting in the caucuses, she’s signed up to speak for Santorum at Precinct 39.

Among other things, Smith gushes about the way Santorum has respected the caucus process and approached the state. “Candidates can have their talking points up on their website, but when you see them articulate it in person, it makes a huge difference in my mind,” Smith said. “This is what every candidate should be doing.”

Another point to bear in mind is that a caucus is a different beast than any other election, noted Ray Dearin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. When trying to motivate voters to sit through an hour-long meeting for their candidate, personal interaction matters. “The candidates that have spent the most time here will do well in the final analysis, I think, although they may divide up the vote,” Dearin said.

Steve Freers, 59, of Cedar Falls, said that Romney “probably should have been here more.” But as a factory worker and a single parent with two daughters to raise, that hasn’t been his top concern. He said he’s looking less for the personal touch and more for someone with the experience and judgment to revitalize the economy. He’s going with Romney.

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