Eight days before Iowans were set to participate in the first nominating contest for the White House, Rick Santorum, who carried the state’s GOP caucuses last time around, nodded off in a church in central Iowa.
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has held a grueling schedule that has taken him to all 99 counties in the Hawkeye State, a feat long seen as an important notch in a candidate’s belt in a state where retail politics and face-to-face meetings are treasured. He did the same four years ago, propelling him to victory here.
But hitting every corner of Iowa may no longer prove as crucial in a year when some candidates have traded in a campaign car or bus for a private plane to strategically hit certain towns and cities. Ted Cruz is the only candidate at the front of the pack who is still attempting to do it, but it's no longer a campaign requirement.
“The more you let people know that you take Iowa seriously, the better chance you have of doing it,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), after whom the statewide accomplishment, the “Full Grassley,” is named, told ABC News. “Visiting all 99 counties is one way of doing it, but it’s not the only way of doing it.”
The greatest knock against the process may be the fact that the only candidates who have accomplished it this cycle are two who have enjoyed the lowest levels of support in the polls: Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the state’s Republican caucuses in 2008, after hitting all 99 counties then, too.
“It’s planting seeds,” Santorum told ABC News Sunday after a church service. He visited all the counties during the spring and summer last year, and has since returned to many. “If you plant the seeds, even, you know, from six months ago, people remember you, they’ve been with you, they’ve talked to you. It turned out, in the past, that that’s been a real big help for us.”
Cruz, who is holding upwards of seven campaign events per day across the state, told reporters this week he'll complete the "Full Grassley" on Monday, just hours before Iowans make their picks.
Grassley said his eponymous voter-engagement tactic, which he carries out annually, may not necessary give a boost to past winners like Huckabee and Santorum. He said caucus-goers ultimately saw them lose their nominating races and may not think are best fit to run the country after it has undergone so much change since previous cycles.
“I would never assume that Iowans expect their presidential candidates to go to every county,” Grassley said, “but because of the reputation of the ‘Full Grassley,’ that’s one way for them to get publicity and, with a few words, say, ‘I’m interested in what every Iowan in the state has to say.’”
Completing the "Full Grassley" requires spending a significant amount of time in the state; Santorum has been in Iowa 90 days and Huckabee 76. But, frontrunner Donald Trump has only been in Iowa 33 days this election.
“Iowa voters, they decide late, and people who don't think they do have not read history very carefully and looked at the caucuses," Huckabee said on Fox News earlier this month. "I say they date everybody in the field, but they don't put a ring on it until wedding day."
But Trump has been out front in Iowa since July, and his supporters show no signs of abandoning him on caucus night Monday, if they turn out. Whether it helps Cruz remains to be seen.
Grassley said the reason he started traveling the state every year was that he didn't want his constituents thinking that he only cared about them when it was election season. He said he believes Iowans see right through that.
"I want people to know that I’m interested in what they have to say when I’m not running for re-election as I am when I’m running for re-election," he said.