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KUNC.org will have coverage of the Iowa Caucuses tonight along with special live coverage from NPR at 7pm. You can get caught up with all the stories as they relate to Iowa in this special section. Live audio is available in the special section on the front page.

What Does Santorum's Iowa Rise Mean? Likely Not Much

Rick Santorum with news media after a campaign stop in Indianola, Iowa.
Chris Carlson
Rick Santorum with news media after a campaign stop in Indianola, Iowa.

Because the news media abhor the absence of drama as much as nature supposedly detests vacuums, Rick Santorum's rise in recent polls of likely Iowa Republican presidential primary caucus voters definitely scratches a journalistic itch.

Santorum's ascent to the top three in Iowa polls, along with Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has spiced up the race, especially after the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania spent so many months stuck in the caboose of GOP candidates.

It's a credit to Santorum's emphasis on old-fashioned retail politics, we are told — his visits to each of Iowa's 99 counties — which symbolized just how seriously he took Republican voters in the first official contest of the 2012 nomination process.

Of course, Santorum was making a virtue of necessity; he lacked the kind of money needed to run the copious TV ads or direct-mail campaign of his better funded rivals.

Still, the question is, even if Santorum were to stun everyone and pull a Mike Huckabee Tuesday evening by coming in first, or if he does less well and comes in second, what would that really mean in the scheme of things? The answer: probably nothing.

Santorum is to some degree having his turn as the anyone-but-Romney candidate, benefiting from the declining fortunes, in Iowa at least, of Newt Gingrich, the last not-Romney. As Gingrich has fallen under the weight of negative ads from Paul and a super PAC backing Romney, Santorum has risen.

Santorum has also been boosted by many social conservatives coalescing around him as other candidates who had fished for their votes — Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry specifically — have seen their support take to the lifeboats as their campaigns took on water.

But as was the case with Huckabee in 2008, Santorum could easily find Iowa the high water mark of his campaign.

Unless a political meltdown of historic proportions happens, Romney should win the primary in New Hampshire, a state in which the former Massachusetts governor now enjoys a huge lead.

Then it's on to South Carolina. Four years ago, Huckabee, a Southerner and former evangelical preacher, failed to win the primary in that first-in-the-South state with its large percentage of Christian conservatives. Huckabee came in second to Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee.

If Huckabee couldn't win the Palmetto State four years ago, how likely is it that South Carolina will give Santorum an encore of what many expect will be a strong performance in Iowa? Not very.

As the National Journal's Ronald Brownstein writes:

Santorum, as a northern Catholic, would face more challenges than a revived Perry or Gingrich in unifying South Carolina's large evangelical protestant vote-which might represent the right's last real chance to slow Romney, depending on the Iowa results. And Santorum has devoted so much time to Iowa — an implicit part of his appeal at his stop in Marshalltown Friday night was that voters should reward the depth of his commitment to the state — that he's established little visibility and virtually no organizational presence elsewhere.

An Iowa win would enormously raise Santorum's profile, of course, but he would not have the time to build the connections in South Carolina that he's accumulated mile by mile here. "Santorum can't replicate there [in South Carolina] what he did here [in Iowa]-which is run for governor," said one senior Romney adviser. Beyond South Carolina, Santorum would be virtually starting from scratch. (It's worth remembering that Santorum too didn't obtain enough signatures to get on the ballot in Virginia.) Santorum also offers Romney the same contrast he's stressed against Gingrich: a career in politics vs. experience in the private sector.

So this moment in the presidential campaign sun for Santorum feels like it will fade rather quickly. It's difficult to see how he would sustain his momentum coming out of Iowa, assuming he wins there.

Still, a late-breaking Santorum surge and potential victory in Iowa would at least give us journalist types some real NEWS to report. And that's certainly worth something, isn't it?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.