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Rick Santorum wins his own kind of victory in Iowa

At the strike of midnight in Iowa, five votes separated Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney with almost all of the returns in from the GOP caucuses counted, but the final tally had long ceased to matter.

Santorum had won his own kind of victory, a staggering run from the back of the pack to the top of the heap at warp speed.

Nobody saw it coming. No one. If they tell you they did, they have better inside information than just about anyone, even Santorum, who has recently joked that just a few weeks ago, reporters were asking him when he was going to drop out of the race.

LIVE COVERAGE: Iowa GOP caucuses

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On a caucus day that resulted in Rick Perry suspending his campaign, and Michele Bachmann on life support, Santorum emerged as a top threat now to Mitt Romney’s quest for the Republican nomination.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” he told a hooting crowd that, despite his new status as a top-tier candidate, failed to fill the hotel ballroom here.

The journey included, by his count, traversing all of Iowa’s 99 counties, conducting 380 town hall events (one event drew a single attendee, Santorum has admitted) and, he added Tuesday night, “36 Pizza Ranches,” appearances at the ubiquitous Iowa restaurant chain.

As the results trickled in and as Santorum’s supporters here watched with increasing happiness and disbelief, the former Pennsylvania senator engaged in a bit of virtual fencing with Romney. The question became: Which candidate would emerge and greet their supporters first, implicating conceding victory to the other?

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It turned out, it was Santorum, who came to the stage here just minutes before Romney in Des Moines.

“Game on!” he declared.

Santorum had about 25% of the vote, knotted with Romney, a higher percentage than had been forecast. It was as stunning a result as this state has ever seen, similar to when George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan here in 1980.

Propelled to the top by the same social conservatives who backed Mike Huckabee four years ago, Santorum, a Catholic, was quick to bring faith into play. “I’ve survived the challenges so far by the daily grace that comes from God,” he said.

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He told the assembled Iowans that they had “taken the first step in taking back this country.”

Hard work is central to Santorum’s message. He has spoken at length about his immigrant grandfather who worked as a Pennsylvania coal miner. When he died, Santorum told the crowd, all Santorum could do was stare at his enormous hands. “All I could think of was those hands dug freedom for me. The essential issue in this race is freedom.”

While Santorum, a two-term senator who was routed in his reelection bid in 2006, detailed an economic plan not overly dissimilar from those of his rivals (low taxes, balanced budgets, etc.), he struck a more unusual note by telling the crowd that those measures wouldn’t do enough to help Americans at the low end of the wage ladder. Santorum has long been interested in poverty issues. “I also believe as Republicans we have to look at those who are not doing well in this society,” he said.

Building on that theme, he said that approach would help him compete with Romney, who holds a huge advantage in resources and organization. “What wins in America are bold ideas, sharp contrasts and a plan that includes everyone, that includes all people across the economic spectrum,” he said.

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For weeks, Santorum has presented himself as a blue-collar, working-class product of Pennsylvania, one who could draw union voters, the old Reagan Democrats, from President Obama. He is the only candidate in the race who hails from the Rust Belt, and he said he would fashion his campaign as an “appeal to voters who have been left behind.”

But he was never far from reminding the social conservatives in the crowd that he was one of them. He made light of Obama’s much-criticized remark in 2008 about voters who “cling” to guns and religion. It was a comment that was made in reference to Santorum’s home state.

“Thank God they do,” Santorum said. “Thank God they share the values of faith and family.”

Santorum left the stage to the tune of the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night”—most notable this evening for the line “and I’ve been working like a dog.”

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“We’re off to New Hampshire,” he said.

It’s a state where Santorum is currently polling in the single digits. In other words, familiar territory.

james.oliphant@latimes.com


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