MASON CITY, Iowa — Rick Santorum isn't going down without a fight. In fact, that fight seems to be lifting him — at exactly the right time.
The Republican presidential candidate who has logged more miles in Iowa than any of his rivals is starting to see his work begin to pay off with a growing list of supporters and a new poll that shows the little-known former Pennsylvania senator vaulting into contention here five days before the Jan. 3 caucuses.
"We've got momentum," Santorum, a long-overlooked candidate in the GOP race, told people at a diner Wednesday in Independence, a day after sounding a similar tone in Mason City. He told reporters: "I have a shot and I'm feeling better about that shot every day, the top three. This could be a late-breaking race. Now we just have to get over the hurdle of convincing people we can win."
By evening, the candidate was telling CNN "hard work pays off, as it does in most areas of life" after the network, in conjunction with Time, released a survey that moved him from the back of the pack to third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.
Indeed, there is new evidence that Iowa Republicans, many of whom are still undecided and looking for a consensus conservative, are starting to give Santorum a fresh look as the caucuses loom and the prospect of a victory by Romney or Paul — considered less conservative than their rivals — becomes more realistic.
Santorum tried to press that point at a Dubuque furniture store, acknowledging anger in the electorate while also saying: "If you want to stick it to the man, don't vote for Ron Paul. That's not sticking it to anybody but the Republican Party."
In recent days, Santorum's crowds have started growing as he rallies conservatives with a pit bull's pugnaciousness, and just a touch of anger. He began airing a new radio ad Wednesday that, while less obvious than a television spot, can be effective in reaching niche conservatives in rural Iowa. And now, the poll that shows him with 16 percent of support in Iowa.
But he still faces hurdles. His cash-strapped campaign has only just started running TV ads, and his organization is small in a state whose contests rely on the ability of campaigns to turn out a slew of supporters.
Even so, Iowans could end up giving him credit for campaigning in the state the old-fashioned way — in living rooms, coffee shops and town squares — even as his rivals relied mostly on TV ads, debates and media interviews. Santorum has built his organization painstakingly, having visited all 99 counties, including at times when there was only one GOP activists to greet him.
His rise comes at a critical moment: conservatives have tested others — helping several candidates rise and quickly fall — and now are focusing on the caucuses, just five days away.
"Rick Santorum could be a real surprise," said former Dallas County GOP Chairman Rob Taylor.
He has earned the support of a number of key backers of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Republican caucuses. They include former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, conservative Sioux City radio host Sam Clovis and some influential evangelical pastors.
Santorum landed the endorsement Tuesday of evangelical conservative activists Alex and Brett Harris, founders of Huck's Army, a national group that supported Huckabee's 2008 campaign. On Wednesday, Steve Sukup, a conservative business leader and former state legislator, announced he was supporting Santorum.
"He's the only candidate in this race I trust," said Chuck Laudner, a veteran Iowa GOP operative who introduced Santorum to more than 100 party activists on Santorum's fourth trip to Mason City. "And he's a fighter."
As if to prove the point, Santorum launched into a speech filled with pokes at the national media and his rivals. For 90 minutes, he tore into President Barack Obama, Hollywood and moderate Republicans — and, by implication, rival Romney.
While Santorum's profile in Congress as a social-issues crusader bought him entrÉe with influential evangelical conservatives in Iowa, it's his unhesitating attack on liberals that seems to be fueling his rise in internal polls by rival campaigns.
"Let's look at colleges and universities," Santorum said in the ballroom of the restored Frank Lloyd Wright Park Inn Hotel on Mason City's town square. "They've become indoctrination centers for the left. Should we be subsidizing that?"
Santorum tossed out Harvard University's motto, "Veritas," Latin for truth. "They haven't seen truth at Harvard in 100 years."
Santorum refers to Obama as a "radical." Just as easily, though, he calls his own party's leaders "the good old guys you can count on to sell out in the end."
Even in entertaining questions from voters, he is frank and at times pointed.
"No, you're missing my point," he told Mason City Republican Julia Jones, a retired factory worker, as he tried to explain Social Security.
Jones, who walked into the event weighing Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, liked what she heard — and decided to support Santorum.
"He doesn't soften the edges, but he doesn't talk down to you either," Jones said. "He's just in-depth."
Associated Press writer Mike Glover in Independence, Iowa, contributed to this report.