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In What May Be Final Turn in GOP Roller Coaster, Will Santorum Get Chance at Ascent?

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Dec. 26, 2011: Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum takes a break from pheasant hunting in Adel, Iowa. (Reuters)

With 45 percent of Iowa Republican voters undecided and a roller-coaster ride about to come to a screeching stop next Tuesday with the GOP caucuses, it may be Rick Santorum's turn to take the final ascent and surprise the political class by ... doing better than expected?

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has been touted as the sleeper candidate by none other than 2008 Iowa caucuses winner Mike Huckabee. He has relentlessly campaigned in the state, hitting all 99 counties and moving his family out there. He has held 350 campaign events in the past year.

He has received key endorsements from well-known social conservatives in the state, and has had solid performances at each of the debates. And he's running an old-school style campaign that Iowa voters expect in the retail-style politics of the Hawkeye State.

The man whose at the back of the polling pack -- despite recent buzz giving him a late boost -- is taking nothing for granted but has nothing to lose.

"My feeling is when you're sitting last, if you can do better than that, that's good," he told Fox News.

Santorum said he's got 1,000 caucus representatives in a contest with about 1,700 caucus locations. He acknowledges that means no official representative to make his case at each of the locations, but at "almost all of them, and no other campaign is going to have someone there who's going to get up and speak on our behalf." 

Santorum, who claims organization and message will make the difference, is also banking on a divide and conquer strategy.

"There's really three primaries going on here," Santorum said. "Ron Paul has his own primary, the libertarian primary. And (Newt) Gingrich and (Mitt) Romney are sort of the establishment primary. And I think there are three who are vying for the conservative mantle to go up against the Gingrich-Romney duo. And I think that I'm going to be the one coming out Iowa with that mantle.

"And if we can do that, then we're off to the races here, and conservatives around the country, just like they're doing here in Iowa, are going to start rallying around our campaign," he said. 

Santorum isn't the only one making a last-ditch effort around the state to appeal to social conservatives. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are likely Santorum's most competitive among the social conservative crowd. And both are working vigorously to get supporters to show up at the caucuses next Tuesday night.  

Bachmann also won a coveted show of support from Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, who on Tuesday said Bachmann "has the courage to be a leader among her peers." 

"She is a real champion in speaking up for values we care about. Michele is a woman of faith and the mother of a beautiful family. She has a 100 percent pro-life record and is a strong supporter of traditional marriage," Schlafly said in a long statement to reporters.

Bachmann is trying to follow in Santorum's footsteps, hitting all 99 counties in one week, an ambitious goal.  Starting in Council Bluffs on the state's western edge on Tuesday, Bachmann will hit gas stations and diners. By nightfall, she was slated to have visited another 10 counties.

Out on the trail Tuesday, Perry again argued that a vote for him is a vote for a Washington outsider. Taking a dig at Paul, he said voters don't have to pick a candidate who would allow Iran to wipe Israel off the earth. 

"You don't have to stand for that," he said. "I have all the respect in the world for the frontrunners," he added, asking if voters replace a Democratic insider with a Republican insider, will Washington change. 

With the three conservative candidates making their late play to win over Iowa's base voters, they are joined by Romney and Gingrich on bus tours around the state while Paul is also making his final appeal. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said early on he is foregoing an Iowa campaign.

Each of the candidates is looking for supporters one at a time and hoping to become a roadblock for Romney, who is looking stronger than expected, and Paul, whose organization is notable for its strength and vastness. With the recent rise of Paul, closer scrutiny is being paid to his record, including a 1990s newsletter in his name that has caused him some trouble.

Santorum, who's been one of Paul's most vocal critics during the debates, alluded to those debates and other policy positions held by President Obama to make his case.

"(Radio host) Rush Limbaugh said that the other day on his show that you'd never have to worry a night that, you know, I wasn't trying to do the right thing in the Oval Office. And that's what I hope the people of Iowa have now picked up," he said.