Since the start of the Republican presidential campaign, eight major candidates have auditioned for the part of Mitt Romney's foil. Rick Santorum was the last to get a long look. The former Pennsylvania Senator lacks Michele Bachmann's Tea Party zeal, Rick Perry's swagger, Herman Cain's theatricality and Newt Gingrich's gift for the crowd-rousing zinger. When Santorum won the Iowa caucuses in January, his success seemed as if it might be a fleeting tribute to his huge investment of time in the state. Even as he held a victory bash at a cramped suburban Des Moines hotel with a bear pelt hanging over the doorway, skeptics predicted he would become the latest in a procession of pretenders to fizzle after catching fire. And he did.
In a primary season packed with suspense, Santorum's improbable resurgence is the biggest twist yet. At a moment when Romney's grip on the GOP appears more tenuous than ever, Santorum is looking to rewrite the story of Romney's inevitable coronation. Santorum has captured conservatives, Tea Partyers and Evangelicals, and with Gingrich stuck in a tailspin, he may finally be unifying the fractious factions of the party's base. Santorum is even leading in Romney's native state of Michigan, where Republicans will vote on Feb. 28 and where a defeat would devastate Romney. With Super Tuesday a week later, the GOP race would, in a sense, start all over again.
From the beginning, Santorum was the sleeper threat. He employs no pollster. To patch holes in his threadbare campaign, he relies on volunteers to help orchestrate rallies or join his traveling entourage. During a low point in Florida last month, as Santorum foundered in the polls and struggled to attract media attention, his aides asked a reporter to forward around an invitation to travel with the candidate. And then there's money: in the two months before his Feb. 7 sweep of Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, Santorum and his outside allies were outspent on television advertising 10 to 1 by Romney's forces, according to data compiled for the Washington Post.
At the same time, Santorum's underdog status and accessible manner can be assets. On the trail, Santorum prefers a freewheeling give-and-take with voters to a choreographed photo op. He frequently spars with hecklers. He has endeared himself to fans with his fondness for sweater-vests. And while he's not so good at concealing his irritation--Cain once described Santorum as "stressed"--he almost always engages on a tough question. "He has a boundless energy, starting each morning with 50 push-ups," says Foster Friess, the Wyoming millionaire who has been a major donor to Santorum's super PAC. "I remember one night finishing up our tour of town-hall meetings after 9:00 p.m., when I'm ready to fall into bed, and he's getting ready to take his family out to dinner at the nearby Denny's."