MASON CITY, Iowa—It hardly seems fair; second-tier candidates toil tirelessly in Iowa just to remain above the double-digit mark. Meanwhile, other candidates sit comfortably at the top of the polls, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Watching Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tirelessly travel around the state in advance of next week's caucuses, one can't help but ask: is it worth it? Could a strong Perry, Bachmann, or Santorum showing in Iowa really make a difference?
According to figures from the Des Moines Register, Santorum has spent more time in the state than any other candidate, with 287 events and 98 days in Iowa. Iowa native Bachmann comes in No. 2, with 212 events and 76 days in the state. Rick Perry has spent the most advertising money there, with $2.86 million in December alone, according to the Register.
All of that spending and bus-touring could very well pay off by launching a candidate into the national limelight beside former Speaker of the House Gingrich, former Massachusetts governor Romney, and Texas congressman Paul, who sit comfortably at the top of Iowa polls, with Romney and Gingrich also firmly leading national polls.
Cary Covington, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, says that there is a distinct opening that second-tier candidates might yet exploit in the Hawkeye State. While Paul has the libertarian vote and Romney has locked up the support of establishment Republicans, says Covington, the social conservative bloc has yet to make up its mind.
This is what Santorum in particular has banked on, with his staunch social conservative views and heavy Iowa campaigning. "Santorum, if he does well in Iowa, exceeds expectations, then he has a chance to...to be heard elsewhere by that same social conservative bloc," says Covington. "So to me this is his opportunity on a national stage to get a hearing by the social conservative wing."
Santorum believes he still has a chance. "I've seen candidates go from zero to 60. … We're definitely on an upward arch," he says. While he won't put a figure on how much ground he believes he can gain before next week's caucuses, the candidate says that his plan is to "start here in Iowa, then keep going in New Hampshire and the rest of the states."
On Tuesday, he exhorted Iowans to vote based on their knowledge of candidates, not on the judgments of national polls or political pundits.
"Don't defer. Lead. That's what Iowans are supposed to do," he told a crowd in Mason City.
Simply exceeding expectations and garnering even 15 percent of the vote may seem like a modest accomplishment, but for a candidate with little to lose, even that small slice of voters can mean a lot.
Furthermore, the caucuses can serve as a wake-up call to a sluggish campaign--when eventual nominee George H.W. Bush earned only 19 percent of the vote for a third-place finish in Iowa in 1988, he began to campaign more aggressively against then-Sen. Bob Dole, one of his chief rivals.
Covington says, however, that this year that wake-up call might work in reverse: "If one of those guys from the second tier move into the top three, it's more of a negative harbinger for [top-tier candidates] than it would be a positive for Santorum or Perry," he says.
On Tuesday, then, the results of the first-in-the-nation caucus may tell the nation two things: how hard some candidates have yet to fight, and how much the leaders have to watch their backs.