The night before the vote in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, stood grinning in disbelief at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in a suburb of Des Moines, surrounded by throngs of supporters who had turned the place into a mob scene where they faced a real risk of getting trampled. Or at least suffering a smack to the head with the butt end of a television camera from a major U.S. network or even one from the U.K. or Japan.
Santorum was suddenly a Republican front-runner, a conservative Catholic surging on the strength of Iowa’s evangelical voters. The next night, as Maclean’s went to press, he was locked in a dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the caucuses’ vote, the first vote in the GOP’s nomination process.
For months, Santorum had languished with support in the single digits and only a few questions tossed his way during televised debates. Now, sporting his trademark sweater vest over a button-down shirt, with a boyish face and earnest demeanour, he had the air of a class president about him (if the class president had fathered seven kids ages three to 20 and put on a few pounds).
Much to his surprise as much as anyone’s, his popularity snowballed after a few endorsements from powerful evangelical leaders, who then blanketed Iowa airwaves with ads proclaiming, “He’s one of us.” On the eve of the vote, Santorum was tied for first place and surrounded by voters—many of them evangelical Christians and parents who brought their children to the event. These were the same voters who carried Mike Huckabee to a 10,000 vote victory in Iowa in 2008. “He stands for what we believe. He has the same value system as us,” said Santorum supporter Lynn Lucy, 41, from Des Moines. “We believe in a nation that stands on God and what His Word says.”
Like Huckabee, Santorum’s approach to Iowa was to visit all 99 counties multiple times, leading to jokes that he was campaigning for Iowa governor. This appearance on the eve of the Iowa vote was, he said, his “380th town hall.” Santorum had to use a bullhorn to make himself heard over the crowd in front of the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. “Ten days ago I was at four per cent in the polls,” he grinned.
Santorum’s challenge going forward will be to quickly set up organizations in the next primary states of New Hampshire, which votes on Jan. 10, and where Romney has a commanding lead, and in South Carolina, where Iowa fourth-place finisher Newt Gingrich is expected to make a stand, and then onward. It will be Santorum’s turn to face the intense scrutiny that comes with front-runner status. He will also face hard questions about his electability—having lost his last Senate race by 18 points because he could not carry moderate Republicans.
But with Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry performing dismally, Santorum has overnight become the standard-bearer for the social conservative wing of the party. Perry, the swaggering governor of Texas, was done in by weak debate performances, including one in which he could not recall which federal departments he planned to eliminate, as well as two policies he pursued in Texas: allowing children of illegal immigrants to receive subsidized tuition at state colleges, and requiring young girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease. And the Iowa-born Bachmann, who was an early front-runner and devoted considerable effort to campaigning in the state, eventually faded as voters concluded she did not have substance on a range of issues.
Santorum’s appeal to the evangelical right is clear. He is not only against abortion, but against contraception, criticizing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states could not outlaw contraception because such laws violate a right to privacy. Indeed, he has called birth control “dangerous’ and “not okay,” telling the evangelical blog Caffeinated Thoughts in October, “It’s a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Santorum now has the potential to combine support from social conservatives with backing from fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks. He has been outspoken in his support for Israel and his opposition to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
But the Iowa vote also revealed a deeply split party and underscored that the eventual nominee will have to work hard to unite it. That was evident from the faction that supported Ron Paul, the 76-year-old libertarian congressman from Texas, who finished a close third, showing that his anti-war and pro-civil liberties sentiment is finding a growing audience among young Republicans and independent voters disillusioned with President Barack Obama. Emerging from a caucus in Des Moines where Paul had been victorious, Treye Nekola, a 30-year-old IT worker, said he was a former Obama voter who now supports Paul. “He is the only candidate that offers something truly different on war, defence spending, and what we need to do to get the budget balanced,” Nekola said.
At his campaign appearances, Paul has insisted that America needs to adopt a radically more modest foreign policy—for both moral and financial reasons. “The current foreign policy does not make us safe but makes us more endangered,” he told a campaign event packed with his young followers on the eve of the caucuses. “Fighting undeclared wars has added $4 trillion to the debt.” Paul was once dismissed as a crank, but his strong finish grabbed Republicans’ attention. And his strong showing in Iowa raises the possibility of the libertarian launching an independent third-party run for the presidency, in the mould of past efforts by Ross Perot and Ralph Nader.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was appealing to an altogether different faction of the party—his rallies were populated by small business owners and well-to-do Republicans concerned about the economy. When Romney, a former business consultant, talks about cutting government programs, it’s not about taking a wrecking ball to the federal government as a matter of principle. He offers a cost benefit analysis: “Is this program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”
“I think he’s got business experience. He’s good with the numbers. He made millions as a private businessman. We need to get the deficit under control,” says Romney supporter Tom Blecker, a 55-year-old producer of music shows in Des Moines. He brushed off accusations that Romney “flip-flopped” on issues. “They’re all flip-floppers,” he says. Nor is he concerned about Romney bringing in health insurance in Massachusetts that critics charge was similar to the so-called “Obamacare.” “It was for the people who didn’t have insurance. He didn’t ram it down the throat of everybody,” says Blecker.
Sandra Morse, a 65-year-old retiree from Waukee, Iowa, called Romney “the only Republican candidate who is electable” and praised his experience as governor and in private business. She declared she could not vote for Paul if he were the nominee. “I would never vote for Ron Paul. I think he’s a loose cannon. He’s doing well, but I can’t understand why.”
Likewise, Paul voter Lou Lippincott, 34, a human resources manager from Iowa City, said he could never vote for Romney. “If it was Romney versus Obama, I would not vote. I cannot support Mitt Romney. I think he would govern similarly to Obama,” he said. Santorum supporter Dave Lyman, meanwhile, a 51-year-old unemployed IT voice technician, supported his candidate because “he’s very conservative and I trust him. His record has been as a conservative.” Lyman insisted that Republican strategists could not force Romney on the party as the nominee. “The Republican core establishment thinks Romney is next in line, but I think you’re seeing resistance to that,” he said.
With such divergent viewpoints, and until a candidate emerges who can bridge those gaps, and ignite some enthusiasm among a wider swathe of Republicans, the winner so far may be Barack Obama.