JOHNSTON, IOWA—The conference room at the Stony Creek Inn in this suburb of Des Moines isn't your typical setting for a winner's party. Then again, Rick Santorum isn't your typical successful politician. The candidate, who had languished at the bottom of the polls for most the year, rose meteorically over the last week before the Iowa caucuses and finished eight votes shy of first place last night.
The room was a tight space, but only a small crowd of supporters—around 150—bothered to stop by anyway. It was a calm scene around 9 p.m., when the early results started to favor Santorum. The Iowans milled about, celebrating and waving their signs only when it was necessary to mug for the TV cameras. Besides the two TVs set up without volume on the sides of the room, there was no reliable way for the crowd packed near the stage to receive the results; instead of relying on televised news reports, supporters got the latest caucus numbers from the reporters packed near the exits of the hall or on their own cell phones and slowly passed the news around the room.
Cheers and chants of "we want Rick" erupted each time updates indicated Santorum led Mitt Romney. Supporters grew increasingly anxious and impatient as the night dragged on with no definitive result, and many criticized Romney for not conceding the race—a wise move from Romney after the final results came in with him in the lead but one that frustrated Santorum supporters. The radio DJ working the crowd into a tizzy described the evening as a game of chicken between Santorum and Romney, with each expecting the other to call and concede.
Eventually Santorum caved in and took the stage and, though his lead was still in doubt, his address had the clear tone of a victory speech. "Game on," Santorum opened before thanking God and Iowans in near-equal measure. He stuck largely to the same talking points from his usual stump speech but delivered with more passion than in the past three weeks. His lines clearly resonated with the crowd in Johnston, which hung on every word. Santorum didn't hesitate to attack Romney, gleefully repeating a supporter's shout of Romneycare, and he set his sights on the New Hampshire primary less than a week away.
Most of the folks at the rally traveled from surrounding towns, with few devoted supporters trekking across the state to show their love. The crowd mixed Iowans who had supported Santorum from the beginning and those who converted during the last-minute surge. Tom Dean, 44, owns two pharmacies and was won over by Santorum's take on fiscal issues. "He supports small business like I need a candidate to," Dean said. But he was one of the many voters who entered Tuesday uncommitted to a single candidate. "I went in open-minded," Dean said, noting that Paul was still in contention when he entered his precinct. It wasn't until he heard Santorum's surrogate—a fellow small-business owner who had traveled in from Florida—that he made the final decision to throw his lot in with Santorum. On the other hand, George Antolik, 51, a firefighter from Johnston, decided months ago that Santorum would receive his support. Antolik ended up seeing Santorum three times over the past six months, including at his caucus location last night. "He's got the same traditional values that I have, that my family members have, and that most Iowans have," Antolik said. "To me, he's got the most common sense out of all of them."
Besides the two rowdy fellows drinking behind me during Santorum's speech, the event didn't live up to its billing as a party; not too surprising for a campaign heavy on family values. The crowd quickly filtered out after Santorum's exit to the tune of LFMAO's "Party Rock Anthem," perhaps a subtle dig at Romney, though you can't blame Santorum if he was in the mood for some celebratory shuffling last night.