MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA—Rick Santorum has bounced up to third in recent Iowa polls and he'll have to hope that this is still the case next Tuesday. The winner of the GOP primary contest in the Iowa caucuses is often not the eventual nominee, but the vote helps weed out candidates who don't really have a shot. The infographics on TV screens next week will detail the top three finishers and discard the remainder as a footnote before they concede defeat on January 4.
Campaigns themselves won't usually admit this, but a prominent Rick Santorum surrogate didn't mince words when I spoke with him outside a sports bar in Marshalltown. "Honestly, I'll say it, I know you want to diminish expectations, I understand that. But I think you finish in the top three or go home," said Chuck Laudner who had introduced Santorum at the preceding event. "Iowa traditionally punches three tickets, and with the very fluid race that we have you don't want to be fifth of sixth, I can guarantee that."
Laudner—who jumped aboard the campaign earlier this fall and has been driving Santorum between events—knows what he is talking about. He was executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa in 2008, overseeing the operation of the caucuses as a neutral observer. In addition to his experience atop the party apparatus, Laudner is one of the state's most knowledgeable grassroots organizers thanks to his work on Representative Steve King's campaigns (he also served as King's first chief of staff) and from his work leading the campaign against three state Supreme Court justices last fall. He hasn't taken an official staff job with Santorum, but has been a high-profile volunteer since he proffered his endorsement in early November; Laudner even served as Santorum's spokesperson in the spin room following the last GOP debate.
Santorum's slow start and late rise didn't surprise Laudner. "Santorum was always on everybody's shortlist. They liked him and trusted him, he was the known commodity of the candidates," Laudner told me. "He had the record; of course he's the pro-life candidate. And then Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, they all had to introduce themselves and the bar was set a little high for them and they couldn't reach it, and they didn't just sink in the polls, they crashed all the way down."
A hardworking campaigner, Laudner wasn't confident enough to say Santorum would be among the top three once the results came in, but was clearly optimistic headed into next Tuesday "We hope it's not too late. You don't want to peak on January second or the fourth," he said. "I think with the undecideds breaking the way they are, these people are coming to caucus. We will have a big turnout coming to caucus, and I think they're going to vote for the candidate they've liked all along. I think they're going to break the way—they see a winner, they see an underdog story involved in this…He was in single digits all this time but as soon as you put a one in front of it now all of a sudden there's viability and boom we're off."