SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum smiled Sunday as he told the story of a campaign event he held a few months ago.
"The audience was one, but it turned out all right," said Santorum. Things have changed.
He began his campaign day at the Daily Grind, a downtown Sioux City coffee shop that's very popular — but nothing like it was on Sunday, when it was so jammed that movement was next to impossible.
"I hope you sold a few cups of coffee," Santorum told operators as he wrapped up his event.
Later, in Orange City, far from the state's population centers, hundreds of Santorum backers jammed a bank conference room, spilling out into the hallway.
As the former Pennsylvania senator's poll numbers have improved, the feel of his campaign events has changed dramatically, and the candidate himself is distinctly upbeat. He has worked for years to build his ties to Iowa's potent conservative electorate, and there are signs it could be paying off.
Santorum stops short of saying "I told you so," but not by much.
"From the very beginning, I said I would trust the people of Iowa," said Santorum. "Our support is rallying and rising here."
Throughout the day, he targeted the conservative activists who pushed his rise in the polls, telling them they can send a message about family and faith by giving him a solid showing in Iowa's leadoff caucuses.
"If you fight for what's right you will send a loud and clear message to the world about where the heartland of America is looking," Santorum told supporters.
"The key is to understand that the foundation of America is family and faith," he said. "This is a decision about what kind of America we are going to hand to your children and grandchildren."
There are signs that Santorum's diligent efforts in Iowa are paying dividends.
"He's been here a lot and shakes hands with people," said Jim Gilbert of Sioux City. "When you ask him a question, he looks you in the eye and answers you."
"He's a family person," said Kathy Gilbert of Sioux City. "It's like a neighbor. It takes a while to get to know them, but when you do they're a friend for life."
John McCarthy of Sioux City said he appreciates the dogged campaign style.
"We're pretty basic," said McCarthy. "We like the face-to-face stuff. Maybe we're not as impressed by star power as other parts of the country."
As Santorum's standing in the polls has increased, some of his rivals have begun attacking him. He says he's ready for that criticism and he's been through tough campaigns before.
"This is not my first rodeo," said Santorum. "Our family has talked about it. I've had tough elections before."
"The pundits say I can't win, but the people, you, are doing the job of Iowans," said Santorum. "You fight to be first because you take the responsibility seriously. I believed from the beginning that the people of Iowa would give us our bump because we have worked for it. Now, it's Iowa's turn to provide leadership."
Logistically, he's put in place more than 1,100 precinct captains to convince the undecided on Tuesday.
"Maybe a third of the people will be undecided," he told supporters. "Help them make up their minds."