SIOUX CITY, IOWA—Rick Santorum might have finally gotten a break at last night's GOP debate. The former senator from Pennsylvania never did poorly in previous debates, but he tended to blend into the background—no major gaffes but no memorable moments either. That might not have been the case in years past when social issues dominated the discussion, but with the economy taking center stage, Santorum has had little to add.
But social issues finally got their time in the spotlight in last night's debate, held in the rural northwestern corner of Iowa. Moderators dedicated major time to abortion and same-sex marriage—the religious right's two favorite issues—during the second half, which allowed Santorum to tout his role in ousting three Iowa Supreme Court judges last fall and trip up Mitt Romney on his support for LGBT civil liberties.
After some prompting from the moderators, Romney explained his transition from being pro-choice to pro-life, but Santorum was not convinced. "Governor Romney says he's pro-life, and I think the difference here is trust and the willingness to go out and fight for the issues you say you believe in," he said after the debate. "When you look at Governor Romney, he hasn't been showing up at social conservative events, and [he's] not participating in those events in a way that would lead you to believe that he sees them as important."
I'd caught Santorum earlier in the day at Java Junkies in Holstein, a small town of 1,400. A Santorum staffer claimed 55 people had crowded into the small coffee shop to watch the former senator speak, but a quick visual scan showed that to be a preposterously high estimation, especially once the swarm of media was excluded from the count. But those who were there were clearly in Santorum's camp, largely because of his ability to articulate their concerns about faith in politics. "It [moral issues] is the most important issue, because if we fix that in our country—morals and family values—everything else will fall into place," said Lana Conover, who went to the event undecided but left inclined to back Santorum.
The social conservative base is definitely out there to give Santorum as slight boost in the polls, and Thursday's debate might have given him the opportunity to shine a bit more. But with two-and-a-half weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, it likely won't be enough to get Santorum past the bottom rung.