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Rick Santorum's slippery surge against Mitt Romney

Published: Monday, Jan. 2 2012 1:51 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to local residents during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Sioux City, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates are largely shifting from persuading voters to mobilizing them for Tuesday's caucuses.  (Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to local residents during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Sioux City, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates are largely shifting from persuading voters to mobilizing them for Tuesday's caucuses. (Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press)

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is on the rise. A CNN/Time/ORC International Poll saw Santorum's support triple since the beginning of December. The poll surveyed likely caucus participants in Iowa and likely primary voters in New Hampshire between December 21 and 27.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's support was at 25 percent. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas garnered 22 percent. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich plummeted from a previous high of 33 percent down to a modest 14 percent of support.

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, emerged from the invisibility of 5 percent support to 16 percent — slapping him in third place as the Iowa caucus horserace turns the corner toward the finish line on Tuesday.

Rick Santorum gives a thumbs up at a campaign stop.   (Associated Press) Rick Santorum gives a thumbs up at a campaign stop. (Associated Press)

Of course this poll was five days ago. But as undecided voters shift their allegiances from one "not-Romney" to another "not-Romney" (an acceptable candidate other than Romney), the spoils may go to whoever peaks at the right time.

And with Iowa's caucus kickoff on Tuesday, a newer poll shows Santorum may be peaking at the best possible time.

Making up their minds

"Nearly half of Iowa respondents say they are undecided or could change their minds," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland told CNN.

One group that seems to be making up their minds are evangelicals. "Most of Santorum's gains have come among likely caucus participants who are born-again or evangelical," Holland told CNN, "and he now tops the list among that crucial voting bloc, with support from 22 percent of born-agains compared to 18 percent for Paul, 16 percent for Romney, and 14 percent for Gingrich."

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum arrives for a campaign stop on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates are largely shifting from persuading voters to mobilizing them for Tuesday's caucuses.   (Evan Vucci, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum arrives for a campaign stop on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 in Ames, Iowa. Republican presidential candidates are largely shifting from persuading voters to mobilizing them for Tuesday's caucuses. (Evan Vucci, Associated Press)

Reuters sees the Christian conservative vote splitting between Santorum, Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The New York Times, however, said Santorum has to appeal to conservatives who are mostly concerned with the economy and national security — and he has to prove he can beat President Obama.

The Des Moines Register's final pre-Iowa caucus poll, conducted Dec. 27-30, may be more revealing, however. The who-voters-like-most breakdown is similar to the CNN poll:

24 percent Mitt Romney

22 percent Ron Paul

15 percent Rick Santorum

12 percent Newt Gingrich

11 percent Rick Perry

7 percent Michele Bachmann

2 percent Jon Huntsman

But the less-reported poll numbers are the who-voters-like-least:

23 percent Newt Gingrich

21 percent Ron Paul

14 percent Michele Bachmann

12 percent Mitt Romney

7 percent Jon Huntsman

6 percent Rick Perry

3 percent Rick Santorum

It's about time

Santorum's rise and likeability in Iowa may have to do with time.

Bloomberg noted Santorum has spent more time in Iowa than the other candidates and is getting results.

Reuters contrasted the amount of time Santorum's has spent in Iowa with Romney's. Romney spent millions in the state in 2008 but didn't really get rolling in Iowa this time around until last week.

The Des Moines Register's candidate tracker showed Romney spending only 18 days in Iowa in 34 events compared to 104 days by Santorum in 308 events. This compares with 81 days for Bachmann, 63 for Gingrich, 46 for Paul, and 2 days for former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

A momentum moment

The momentum of Santorum's rise is more obvious if the Des Moines Register poll's results are looked at by the individual days of the survey. "If the final two days of the Iowa Poll are considered separately," Bloomberg reported, "Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains steady at 24 percent."

The distance between Santorum and Romney narrows even more if you look at the last day of the polling where Santorum was just one point away from Romney.

The smaller slices from the survey do have a larger margin of error — 5.6 percentage points for the two-day slice, for example — making even apparent trends unpredictable.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy told the Des Moines Register the volatility in the poll numbers means things could change at any moment: "Polling is a nightmare right now."

J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines- based Selzer & Co., which conducted the Register's poll, sees a shift toward Santorum. "If he continues on this trajectory, he can win," Selzer told Bloomberg. "He benefits from Romney holding steady … and from a rather dramatic slide by Ron Paul."

Conviction and reality

Nonetheless, Santorum faces an uphill battle according to the New York Times: "His campaign lacks the resources to fight a drawn-out battle for the nomination. He is already under assault from rivals like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. And victory in Iowa would be hollow if he were to suddenly flame out in New Hampshire and South Carolina."

But will the "trajectory" match reality?

As Bloomberg points out, the last Iowa Poll before the caucuses has done pretty well in predicting the winner. In 2008. For example, the poll showed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at 32 percent to Romney's 26 percent. Huckabee received 34 percent of the vote and Romney had 25 percent.

Perhaps that result is reason enough, even without its subtle italicized religious undertones, for Santorum's website to feature a quote from Huckabee: "I adore Rick Santorum's conviction."

And with the Des Moines Register's poll finding that 41 percent of likely caucus goers saying they could still change their minds, political conviction seems to be slippery in Iowa.

EMAIL: mdegrote@desnews.com TWITTER: www.twitter.com/degroote @degroote

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