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As Bachmann lags, Santorum surges in Iowa

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Rick Santorum
Republican presidential candidate and Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum (L) speaks with his wife Karen at his side at the Iowa Straw Poll which is being held at Iowa State University August 13, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Santorum's popularity is improving and his rivals have started to go after him, a sign that he's now viewed as a threat.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Here are some signs of a successful Iowa caucus campaign: rising poll numbers, a super PAC and attention from competitors.

Quite suddenly, Rick Santorum can lay claim to all three.

"A week ago we were in last place," Santorum said during a campaign event Friday at Buffalo Wild Wings to watch Iowa State play in the Pinstripe Bowl. "Right now, people are thinking we might finish third."

After months of campaigning in Iowa but remaining at the bottom of the polls, Santorum is boasting about record-breaking fundraising, a dramatic twist for the former Pennsylvania senator, who until recently was an afterthought in this year's race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Now that his fortunes appear to be shifting, Santorum stands to snatch coveted Christian conservative votes from Rep. Michele Bachmann and, to some degree, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Like Santorum, both have been wooing the same socially conservative voting bloc with their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, small government and the economy.

Matt Vansieckle of Ogden, Iowa, is among those giving Santorum a second look.

"To me, he's been the most consistent conservative, not only in word but in deed," Vansieckle said. "Rick may be hitting his stride. So, as far as analyzing momentum and the person who most accurately represents my world view, Rick seems to be the way I'm going."

Recent polls show Santorum with between 10 and 16 percent of Republican caucus-goers voting for him in Tuesday's caucuses, according to Real Clear Politics. That's a marked increase from previous polls that put him in the single digits, in many cases coming in last.

Even a third place win in Iowa could give Santorum the momentum to move on to other early primary states, and give him much needed attention among donors to help in his fundraising efforts.

Meanwhile, Santorum's rivals have started to go after him, a sign that he's now viewed as a threat. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, has paid for a radio ad criticizing Santorum's support of earmarks.

At the same time, Santorum is getting an advertising boost from the Red White and Blue Fund, a super PAC that is technically unaffiliated with Santorum's campaign, but has put money down on an ad painting Santorum as a true conservative with governing experience. Only the top candidates have so far benefitted from these organizations, which can raise unlimited amounts of cash and spend big on advertising.

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum announces he is entering the Republican presidential race on the steps of the courthouse in Somerset, Pa., Monday, June 6, 2011.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

In an appeal to social and religious conservative voters who make up a sizeable chunk of the Republican base in Iowa, Santorum frequently brings up his views on abortion, which he staunchly opposes.

And it appears to be paying off. According to a recent CNN/TIME poll, Santorum is doing better than any other candidate with those who identify themselves as born-again Christians.

Santorum's credibility among conservative Christians threatens to siphon votes from Bachmann, who has long opposed abortion and touts her Christianity to attract support. Bachmann has suffered politically in recent days after she lost her Iowa chair to Ron Paul's camp and dropped to the bottom of the polls.

But there are other reasons some voters are choosing Santorum over Bachmann.

Sen. Rick Santorum
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on July 20.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While Bachmann frequently talks up her one-year record of sitting on the House Intelligence Committee, voters at the Buffalo Wild Wings event pointed out that Santorum has far greater foreign policy experience with eight years on the Senate's Armed Services Committee under his belt.

And while both Santorum and Bachmann are known for championing issues near to the conservative cause, such as eliminating President Barack Obama's health care law, Kittie Peacock of Des Moines says she prefers Santorum because he has a history of getting things done in Congress, such as his sponsorship of a bill to overhaul the welfare system in the mid-1990s.

"Santorum has shown to me by his record, not only does he believe that - and I don't doubt Michele - but he has gotten it done," she said. "So I'm backing him for that reason, not because I don't like Michele."

For Taylor Christianson from Madrid, Iowa, it's partly personality that puts him in Santorum's camp.

"The thing that impressed me about Rick Santorum is that he came in very casual, he started very relaxed with the crowd, he spent a lot of time talking to us and fielding questions," he said. "Michele Bachmann came in and spent the whole time on a podium. She read off a Powerpoint and talked about Obamacare on a Powerpoint behind her. That's someone who's not doing anything for me."

Christianson attributes Santorum's rise to old fashioned retail politics, not the big spending and attack ads other candidates have resorted to.

"Over time, people are going to start judging character," he said. "We've seen Newt's character come out, we've seen Herman Cain's character come out months ago. People are really going to get more skeptical of the type of person we're supporting."

Frank Seydel of Ames, Iowa, hasn't decided who he will support next Tuesday, but is considering Santorum. He charted Bachmann's decline in popularity against Santorum's rise.

"Up close and personal, [Bachmann] is incredibly engaging and charismatic — just a bundle of energy," Seydel said. "But because her resume is fairly thin, she works really hard to promote herself. So, she talks a lot about her accomplishments when really they aren't all that much. It comes across, I think, as bragging."

Santorum has far less charisma than Bachmann, Seydel said, which is why no one has paid much attention to him until now.

"He happens to be peaking right at the right time for the caucuses," Seydel observed.

Indeed, Steve Grubbs, an Iowa GOP strategist who most recently worked for Herman Cain's campaign, said that Iowa voters have had time to evaluate all the candidates and examine their political baggage.

Until now, Santorum's only scar was that he wasn't electable, and now that is changing, Grubbs said.

"A lot of winning in Iowa is peaking at the right time," Grubbs said. "And Rick Santorum has not had any of the negative focus on him because he's peaking late. That's the best of all worlds."

Grubbs predicts a second or third place finish for Santorum next Tuesday.

Still, the Buffalo Wild Wings event was sparsely populated by voters out to support Santorum; most were there to cheer Iowa State.

As the ISU Cyclones scored a touchdown, Santorum said it was serendipity.

"This is all working out well for us," he said.