COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - Over the past few months a small but steady parade of potential 2016 White House hopefuls have made political pilgrimages to Iowa two-and-a-half years before voters here will gather for the state's critically important presidential caucuses.
Many of them are relatively new faces to the discerning Hawkeye State electorate like emerging GOP superstars Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Ran Paul, R-Ky., who have both visited Iowa in recent weeks and will be back again.
But none of the new faces have the almost-blood-line-deep connection to the state and its people that Rick Santorum does.
Bright and early Thursday morning the former presidential candidate who scored a belated victory over Mitt Romney in the 2012 Iowa caucuses will wake up in place he knows well - Council Bluffs - in the state's southwestern corner to begin long day of political events that will take him up the Missouri River almost to the Minnesota border and then south again toward Des Moines.
For Santorum, who accomplished the marathon political feat of visiting all of Iowa's 99 counties during the last election cycle, his three-day visit this week will take him on roads he's traveled before, to small towns where he knows the person who's scooping his ice cream sundae by name, and to event halls where he will encounter voters and elected officials he's already met not once or twice but three and four times.
He will even be driving in the same Ram 1500 pickup (nicknamed the "Chuck Truck" after owner Chuck Laudner) that ferried him around the state in 2011. Naturally, Laudner, a former Iowa GOP official and political adviser to Santorum, will be behind the wheel.
On Thursday the former Pennsylvania senator, who became Romney's most formidable adversary during last year's GOP primary, will begin his day with coffee and scrambled eggs at a private breakfast fundraiser for Iowa congressman Tom Latham.
Then, Santorum, Laudner and aide Matt Beynon will head north, possibly stopping at some of the senator's favorite places like the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in Le Mars.
By sunset, Santorum and his team will have traveled more than 160 miles, arriving in Rock Rapids where he will deliver the keynote address at a Lyon County and Northwest Iowa Republican Party fundraising dinner. There, the once and possibly future presidential contender will see several familiar faces, including the state's Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, Rep. Steve King, who has made headlines for his recent comments on immigration reform, and former South Dakota governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, Mike Rounds.
From there Santorum will make his way back to the Des Moines area (another 270 miles) where on Friday afternoon he plans to visit the Iowa State Fair - traditionally a campaign trail must-do.
On Saturday, Santorum will speak at a much-anticipated political cattle call in Ames organized by the Christian conservative group, the Family Leader. But Santorum will have company. Also attending are Sen. Cruz and his father, Rafael, real estate mogul Donald Trump, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. (Family Leader head Bob Vander Plaats, who will also speaking at Saturday's gathering, endorsed Santorum ahead of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses).
Santorum's visit has all the hallmarks of a presidential campaign swing. His political team even released a media advisory detailing Santorum's stops over the next few days that bears a striking resemblance to his old campaign schedules.
As a presidential candidate, Santorum logged more days and attended more events in Iowa than any of his competitors. Sometimes holding as many as eight events per day, he showed up at diners, libraries, and countless Pizza Ranch franchises all over the state. Sometimes his crowds numbered in the hundreds; other times, only a dozen people turned out to take the measure of the staunchly conservative, family values-friendly candidate.
On the night of the caucuses last January, Santorum's hard work paid off. Almost. In a disappointing twist for Santorum, Romney was initially declared the winner. But several weeks later, a closer look at the vote tally revealed that the victory actually belonged to Santorum. But by then, his forward momentum had been blunted by the confusing and belated recount.
In the nine months since Romney's loss to President Obama last November, Santorum has been anything but a political wallflower. He has spoken out on a variety of political issues from the terrorist attacks in Benghazi to the Congressional fight over gun control to anti-abortion rights legislation through his Patriot Voices PAC. He's also expanded his business interests, becoming CEO of a faith-based movie company, and been a ubiquitous guest on cable news.
Santorum's maneuverings during the political off-season have future presidential candidate written all over them.
"When I look at the Republican Party these days and who the quote 'leaders' are, I'm not particularly comfortable that they're reflecting the values of conservatives," Santorum said in a recent interview with ABC News. "I try to pick my spots where my voice is needed."
His visit to Iowa this week will only heighten the speculation that he is gearing up for a second try at the Republican nomination and that he sees the Hawkeye State as crucial to his chances for a do-over.
"I miss not being there," Santorum said wistfully, recalling his time in the state that has become almost a second home to him. "I made a lot of great friends, really connected to the people there. I'm very excited about coming back, traveling around and seeing some cornfields again."