They Really Love Me!

 

Patrick Caldwell

The media crowds around Rick Santorum during a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa.

MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA—Rick Santorum's campaign is on the upswing, which has totally blindsided his staffers. The latest polls have Santorum gaining steam toward a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses just days before Iowans vote. The late-stage windfall comes at the right time for the candidate: Santorum won't have to endure the weeks of media scrutiny that have slowly sunk other candidates who've pulled ahead of the pack.

Iowans are turning out in droves to hear him speak, but the campaign used to glad-handing a few retirees in a small-town coffee shops has yet to readjust. Two campaign stops yesterday made this evident. Santorum scheduled a midday visit to a Buffalo Wild Wings franchise in Ames to coincide with the Pinstripe Bowl. The Wild Wings franchise is a favorite for Iowans watching football games. The outlet was bound to be packed that day given that Iowa State University (the hometown college in Ames) would be squaring off against Rutgers in a college football game.

Almost every table except the six saved for Santorum's party was already filled an hour before he arrived, but the room full of patrons wearing red and yellow t-shirts made it clear that the crowd was there to watch football rather than to hear Santorum. The game kicked off and ISU jumped to a 6-0 lead before Santorum showed up, when the mood quickly took a turn for the worse. A large media crowd enveloped Santorum at the front entrance and shifted alongside him as he attempted to move from table to table to shake hands with the voters.

An applause burst out shortly thereafter, but was quickly followed with audible shouts of "goddamn!" and "that's bullshit!"—language one doesn't often hear at the Santorum campaign stops that are typically heavy on the faith-and-family talk. An ISU touchdown had just been called back over a penalty, and the Cyclones would give up 17 points to Rutgers in the second quarter, never to recover. Santorum's visit didn't go much better. Iowa voters grumbled about the media swarm blocking their view of the big screens and stared sullenly during commercial breaks, with their attention otherwise consumed by ISU's game.

Once Santorum managed to make his way to the reserved tables, it turned out only a handful of his supporters had shown up, leaving empty the seats that had been reserved for 30 people. Reporters crowded around, blocking the candidate from the view of the restaurant's attendees. Santorum at one point took off his traditional campaign sweater vest and replaced it with an ISU sweater vest.

The mess also left no path for the waitress to reach the table and take his order. Her manager fretted beside me on the edge of the mob about the disruption to his business, noting that the Santorum group had only informed him that they would be unsettling his establishment at around 9 or 10 the previous night. After a few tries, Santorum's waitress—decked in football garb and ISU insignia eye black—muscled her way past the media to take the politician's order of ice water and hot wings. She was able to get through with the wings, nearly dropping the side of blue cheese. Santorum spent his remaining time munching on wings and chitchatting with the few people beside him.

Santorum's next jaunt on the schedule that evening was to another sports bar 40 miles down the road here in Marshalltown. This time, a crowd of well over 100 had gathered to hear the candidate. After devoting himself to the Iowa campaign trail for the past year (he was the first to hit all 99 counties and has spent far more days in the state than any other candidate), Santorum was finally getting the attention he thought he deserved.

The only problem was that no one could hear him speak. Committed supporters and potential voters alike were in two different, adjacent rooms. Santorum stepped up to the podium in the smaller room where around 25 supporters were seated at tables. Those in the other room careened in for a look, but CSPAN kept Santorum's microphone muted. The folks in the much larger side room were left to glance bewildered at each other and hope to catch a stray phrase.

Eventually, the staff at Legends American Grill found a workaround: They turned all the big screens and tableside TVs away from the college football games and onto the live CSPAN feed. Except the TV version was on a 10-second delay, which created the effect of a musical round; the two crowds would applaud or laugh at competing times. Even Santorum picked up on the awkward effect, occasionally overhearing his voice in the other room. "This is going to be harder than I thought," Santorum said, continuing on only to stop himself a few minutes later. "I feel like I'm doing one of those remotes from Australia." The crowd watching on the TVs picked up on Santorum's stumbles and did what they could to lend a hand by absently clapping along with the other room even if they were not yet aware of which talking point was receiving their appreciation.

Outside both venues, activists had placed bright green fliers in the driver-side door handle of every car that called Santorum a "Pro-Life FRAUD!!" The flier—clearly homemade with overlapping photos on the back—criticized Santorum for backing "radical pro-abortion candidates" such as New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 1997 or fellow Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter in 2004. The ads purported to be "Authorized and Paid for by The Iowans for Life," though it's doubtful the state's main anti-choice organization had any involvement; the group has already disavowed association with a similar ad targeting Gingrich, and the group's executive director, Maggie DeWitte, is personally backing Santorum's bid.

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