When Early Returns started doing its regular Santorum posts something like a year ago now, it was sort of an inside joke for Pittsburgh politicos trying to keep tabs on the hometown guy as he shouldered his very much uphill battle for the presidential nomination. Here and there somebody would call him a dark horse, but never did we imagine -- and again, we've been writing about him every day for months -- that he'd be considered a front-runner in Iowa.
There's a reason why it's being called the most tumultuous caucus in history.
Two weeks ago, as Jeff Zeleny writes at the NYT, he could hardly get office employees to listen to him during lunch break. Now he's getting swamped wherever he goes, as our Laura Olson has noted repeatedly the past few days.
Roger Simon at Politico surveys a scene where a scant 300 Iowans at a rally can make a candidate "dizzy with delight."
NYT poll expert Nate Silver thinks Santorum will come in third just a couple points behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, but says the free media from Iowa will help him much more than better paid candidates:
Still, the stronger Mr. Santorum’s performance, the more credible his claim to being the one and only “anti-Romney” candidate. Moreover, Mr. Santorum could use the earned media from a strong finish more than most of his opponents, since his campaign has little financial or organizational strength beyond Iowa. Positive momentum from the caucuses, particularly in the event of a clear first-place finish, would bide Mr. Santorum time, giving him the chance to build a more robust campaign operation before South Carolina and Florida. His near-term objective would be finishing second or a strong third in New Hampshire, which might require as little as 15 percent of the vote there.
Mark Blumenthal at Huffington Post sees the same Romney/Paul/Santorum finish.
Earned media is both good and bad for the former Pa senator. The NYT does a whole piece on his sweater vests, while CBS quotes him with the following eye-raising remarks on welfare before a mostly-white Iowa crowd:
Answering a question about foreign influence on the U.S. economy, the former Pennsylvania senator went on to discuss the American entitlement system - which he argued is being used to politically exploit its beneficiaries.
"It just keeps expanding - I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don't sign up more people under the Medicaid program," Santorum said. "They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That's what the bottom line is."
He added: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
UPDATE 4:56 p.m. There's some debate on what Santorum actually said. (WashPost)
Expect a lot more digging into Santorum's other comments, too, should he be catapulted into front-runner status. The liberal site Think Progress looks into his support of outlawing contraception.