On the Iowa Trail with Rick Santorum: A Day with the GOP’s Hardest Working Candidate

Nov 22, 2011 6:00am
ap rick santorum dm 110606 main On the Iowa Trail with Rick Santorum: A Day with the GOPs Hardest Working Candidate

The Associated Press

“Are you with the campaign?”

“I am the campaign!”

It’s 7:30 a.m. in West Burlington, Iowa and Rick Santorum has just walked into his second stop of the day, a breakfast town hall at the Broadway Cafe. It’s a traditional greeting for Santorum—despite barnstorming across the first caucus state — he still has low name recognition in Iowa.

His day started at 6 a.m. when he carried his own bag out into the dark where one of his field staffers was waiting to take him to a 6:30 a.m. radio interview.

To say it’s a stripped down campaign would be an understatement. There is none of the fanfare of other campaigns, where teams of advance staffers have every detail orchestrated, and not to mention a line of SUVs ready to go. In the cold West Burlington night, it was Santorum navigating to the radio interview while his staffer drove.

At the first stop and the six that followed, the former Pennsylvania senator who lost his 2006 Senate race repeated the same refrain: “I do believe we are going to win this thing.”

It seems impossible if you look at the polls. The latest Bloomberg poll from last week had him at three percent support in the state, and the Des Moines Register poll from last month had him at only five percent support, but Santorum points out that he’s also the least known candidate, and that’s a good sign.

On Friday, the Santorum campaign allowed ABC News along for its marathon 14-hour day to see what it’s like on the hardest working campaign this cycle. It used to be traditional for candidates to campaign hard in the early states. Last cycle, Mitt Romney would hold five or more events daily — but no more. This year it is only Santorum that holds seven, eight, sometimes even nine events a day trying to build the momentum to “win this thing.”

The Pitch

The candidate gives his pitch to crowds sometimes as small as ten and then as large as about 40 Friday evening in a town about an hour outside of Des Moines. He focuses on family values, his conservative record, boosting manufacturing in the nation’s small towns, and how he would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But, at the end he always tries to seal the deal with the probable caucus-goers he is sitting with.

“All the campaigns say they need your help — they are lying. I need your help,” Santorum implores the crowd.

He then gets into the details. He’s not shy or embarrassed and asks those gathered to not only sign the cards that were just handed out by two of his staffers and daughter, Elizabeth, but he asks the supporters out there to go a step further and be a precinct captain or vouch for him at their caucus sites. Oh, and a donation wouldn’t hurt either, the candidate says.

Friendly, personable, and yes funny, Rick Santorum is nothing like he seems on television or in debates. He may not be Bill Clinton charismatic, but he’s also not the angry hardliner that seems to come through in those short sound bites.

During the radio interview, but before the first breakfast town hall, Santorum’s staffer had gone back to the hotel to pick his daughter up and ran late. A supporter that had shown up at the radio station offered to give him and the reporter trailing him a ride to the event. The only problem — there was only one seat up front and a stool in the back. After some insistence that turned into quite the back-and-forth, he made sure he was the one on the stool.

Yes, a candidate running for president of the United States rode in the back of a van on a stool to a campaign event.

The Angry Rick Santorum Persona

But the anger, which thanks to “Saturday Night Live” has become somewhat of a persona, is something he’s clearly aware of. In an interview in his car from Mt. Pleasant to Washington, Iowa he said it’s not something he has heard in past campaigns, but he does hear it often now. He says that he’s “got to be focused on how I can better communicate on television what is really going on as opposed to what people are seeing.”

“I hear that from what people say when they see me on television. They think I’m angry. I’m not angry. Do you think I’m angry? I’m not an angry guy. I get wound up and passionate about things, but I’m not angry,” Santorum said. “You have to take it seriously if people think you are coming across as angry then you got to reflect on that and see … it’s not what you say and what you do. It’s what people hear and see, so you got to somehow correctly channel those emotions so they reflect how you really feel, not what people see.”

It clearly touched something, as he went on to mention it at every other stop, including the fifth event of the day at an Italian restaurant in a rural town in southeast Iowa. Here he “apologized” to the twenty people gathered if he does come across angry explaining he’s just “passionate.”

On the Trail With Elizabeth Santorum

Santorum often says that being the father of seven children gives him “patience.” They also help him out on the stump.

His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is often along the ride. She’s only 20, but you wouldn’t know it. Much more mature than her years, she works as an assistant and body person who makes sure her dad sleeps and eats, bringing him waffles and sausage for breakfast and trying to get him to eat some almonds later in the day.

“Almonds are good for you,” she tells her father.

“Also high in calories,” he answers and declines.

When she’s not with her dad, she says the campaign diet “devolves into McDonalds and milkshakes and unhealthiness.”

“I try to make sure he goes to sleep and gets rest and isn’t working because he’ll stay up and check e-mails, and keep working and try to function on two hours of sleep,” she explains.

She added that it’s “frustrating” that people think of her father as angry, and says the polls are “paradoxical” to her because “being out here on the ground I see something so different, the groundswell of support from people.”

She says her dad explains to the family not to get upset when campaigns get dirty because “It’s politics, not personal.”

“We always try to pray for the families of the other candidates. We know how hard this is. Being gone a lot and hearing people say mean things. I don’t care who you are being in political life is hard for families,” she says. “Sometimes my blood gets boiling.”

The Mount Pleasant stop was at pizza a shop with about 20 people. He ran into a reaction, well, he gets a lot.

“How are you, young lady?” the candidate asks a senior citizen.

“Just fine,” she replies

“I’m Rick Santorum.”

“Are you running for something?”

“Yes, President of the United States.”

“President!” the lunch-goer exclaims.

At the events, though, people are signing cards, and at least one check was handed over to his daughter. The campaign will use those cards to try to push those that attend the events to caucus for their candidate. Santorum is openly and aggressively organizing in a way the other campaigns are not. Most voters that spoke to ABC News were impressed, but Iowa voters aren’t ready to settle on a candidate six weeks out.

Lindy Chrisinger from Mt. Pleasant says although he’s pro-choice he “supports him in a big way.”

“I don’t want to close him out yet, but I will caucus and I will vote, but it’s a big field,” Chrisinger acknowledged. “Romney seems to have the best chance of getting enough votes to get there … but the senator is very impressive.”

Santorumentum

Deep in the middle of a Newt Gingrich boomlet , Santorum is convinced he’s up next, and he will benefit from this traditional grassroots campaigning the others aren’t doing. Having the last burst of attention right before the caucuses could give him the momentum he needs to win Iowa — so, why is his boomlet next?

“Some would say because I’m the only one left to get a boomlet,” Santorum says while laughing. “I would say because if you look at the attention that’s been paid to the other candidates, and the knowledge that people have of other candidates, I think we are probably the least known candidate in the race here in Iowa and so as people are looking around … my strong sense is that people are going to start examining the only candidate they don’t know much about, and I think when they do, obviously I feel confident that we will do well.”

He says he also hears quite often, “We love you Rick. We think you are great, but we are not sure you can win.” He asks those voters to keep him on their list, and as candidate after candidate has their moment in the sun and then plummets, he believes they will come back to him.

“I see a momentum and it won’t be a momentum moved by the press, it will be a momentum by folks that are actually taking the time to analyze the candidates,” Santorum says. “From the very beginning of this campaign I’ve described this as being on an episode of ‘Survivor’ and you just want to stay on the island and be able to be there and hopefully be the last person standing when it comes down to caucus day. That’s been our game plan, that’s what we have been working on, working under the radar.

“Would I have liked to have the boomlet? Sure. Would I have liked to have the opportunity? Sure, but the best time to have it is when it matters, when people are voting and we feel we are in a good position to make that happen,” Santorum added.

Iowa: Does the Old Way of Doing Business Still Work?

Up at 5 a.m., out the door at 6 a.m., back at night around midnight — he’s the hardest working candidate — but will it work? He believes if he wins Iowa, he’ll go all the way.

“If Iowa provides the spark we have plenty of timber on the ground in New Hampshire and South Carolina to light this campaign on fire,” Santorum told several of the town hall crowds.

On the way from West Burlington to Mt. Pleasant, he says he’s the “workaholic” who packs his schedule, not an over enthusiastic staffer.

“I tell [staff] sleep is overrated and the asset that this campaign has — we don’t have money, we don’t have media coverage, what we have is a candidate that is willing to work real hard and get out there and convince the people of Iowa that we are the best candidate and you can’t do that if you aren’t out there talking to people.”

He wears brown cowboy boots throughout the marathon day, and he tells those there to hear him it’s so they can “kick the tires of the candidate,” ask him questions, and meet him up close. He’s been to all 99 counties of Iowa and spent 78 days in the state, with a whopping 226 events, according to the Des Moines Register candidate tracker.
Michele Bachmann, his closest competitor, has spent 58 days in the state and held 114 events. This is what Iowa voters are used to. He says his traditional campaign is a test case to see if the old way of doing business still works.

“We will find out. Let’s see what the people of Iowa say,” Santorum says in the same car interview. “The old joke when I started here was asking a farmer who he’s for, ‘Are you for the guy you just met?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know I’ve only met him 5 times.’ That’s not the case this time. There are definitely lots of folks out there I’ve met more than 5 times, but I suspect most candidates, the majority of candidates can’t say they met them once or even seen them once or were even in their town and we will see whether campaigns have changed and whether Iowa has changed and I think we are a good taste case on that.”

Brian Roth, the chairman of the Henry County GOP, told Santorum at the Mt. Pleasant pizza shop he was disappointed that “other campaigns have gone other directions trying to be a national campaign. Iowa is not a national campaign.”

“I think we are used to in Iowa to have these opportunities to be with people,” Roth said. “It’s being in the coffee shops and community halls talking in a direct way with constituents, and you will have a larger impact having a personal touch. We Iowans love that personal touch.”

Santorum hopes Roth is right.

He may be the only one barnstorming the state, but he’s also the only candidate that doesn’t set time aside to fundraise. Instead of high dollar dinners he asks people at his events to donate and then makes calls when driving from event to event. His finance staff is only one person.

“I don’t do a lot of fundraising and maybe I should. People say you are running this low budget campaign well it’s because we are not out doing a lot of fundraising. We are relying on folks that we meet along the way,” Santorum said. “One of the things I do in the car…I’ll call people and see if they are willing to be able to — I’m the fundraiser, I’m the candidate and fundraiser.”

He’s hoping that if he pulls in a surprise win on January 3rd, as Mike Huckabee did in 2008, he will bring in enough money to finance a longer campaign.

Isabella

On this particular Iowa trip his wife, Karen and his eldest son were also supposed to join him, but his three-year-old daughter Isabella, is sick. She suffers from Trisomy 18, a rare disorder that kills roughly 90 percent of children before or during birth. Bella has a cold, and because of her condition it’s very serious.

From West Burlington to Mt. Pleasant, Elizabeth calls her mom to see how her sister, who the family calls “Boo” is doing. It’s clear it was a hard night — especially for a candidate that stresses family values and the importance of marriage at almost every campaign stop — being away from his family is clearly not easy, especially in this situation.

“It’s stressful because we are dealing with a little girl who a cold can kill her … we are always faced with a few days that are really touch and go, and you want to be there not just to physically help, but emotionally because it is a very stressful thing,” Santorum said. “It is certainly hard to keep focused on what you are doing here when things back home are not as good as you’d like them to be.”

He says it’s worth it, though, because he’s the right candidate to fix the country.

On the Stump

From stop to stop Santorum “tries to stay current” on his tablet, pointing out that while he has only a few advance staffers and one finance staffer, he has no research staff.

On the stump, he tends to focus on his plan and his experience, but he does dig at his opponents usually during the question and answer portion of the hour-long town halls. At a small stop with about 15 people in Ottumwa, he told the crowd mostly made up of senior citizens the health care plan Romney enacted in Massachusetts was the “foundational” problem Santorum had with the his candidacy.

“The problem with Obamacare is the same problem as Romneycare — which is an acceptance that the government is the one who can best allocate resources and make decisions as to how the health care system should run. That’s fundamentally flawed,” Santorum told the crowd, which nodded in agreement.

Not Exhausted, but Energized

Despite the intensity of his schedule, Santorum says he’s not exhausted. At the last stop, an evening town hall at a Godfather’s Pizza — yes of Herman Cain fame — Elizabeth made sure her dad took sips of water while taking questions from the crowd. He made a point of saying the breakneck pace is “energizing,” and joked that the reporter that was along for the ride all day looked “bleary eyed.”

He wouldn’t set expectations or goals, but just said that he continues to be in the race for the next year, and points out that it’s not whether you finish first, it’s that “you do better than everybody thinks you will do.”

“We feel we need to finish well here. I think we can win here. I really do. I think we can win Iowa, but in any respect I think we are going to greatly exceed expectations,” Santorum said.

Elizabeth took this semester off from the University of Dallas, but is waiting to see what happens in January before deciding if she will take another semester off.

He wouldn’t entertain questions about his future if he doesn’t do well in the Hawkeye state.

On the way out back into the night after his seventh event of the day, Santorum said he was “pleased with the crowds” and “questions.”

“We had a good strong commitment from people,” Santorum said, but adding that usually he gets about 80 percent support in a room, while the Knoxville event was only about 60 percent. “Folks are interested, and a lot of folks left here are very enthusiastic and willing to work hard for us.”

“We need a lot of help and we are getting it,” Santorum added before getting into his car to go back to his hotel and do it all over again the next day.

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