The latest word from Iowa is that a decent chunk of Republican voters might be poised - finally! - to anoint Rick Santorum as their new flavor of the week.

Nobody believes that Santorum can actually win the caucuses next Tuesday, but he's drawing bigger crowds lately (though anything would be an improvement), he has notched endorsements from influential Christian evangelicals, and he's drawing 16 percent of Iowa Republicans in the new CNN-ORC poll (triple the percentage he posted in early December, and good enough for third place). All told, it appears that Iowa's social conservatives are taking a serious second look at the guy. Who knows, they may throw him enough of a lifeline to keep his candidacy alive for a few extra weeks.

But the real question is, what took them so long to boost him?

Given Santorum's faith-based purity and family values pedigree, why haven't those voters flocked to him en masse? Why has he long dwelled at the bottom of the polls? Given the fact that his main Iowa rivals, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, are manifest lightweights, why have voters on the cultural right resisted him? He's a mostly decent debater, he's consistent on the stuff they care about, he fought for their issues in the House and Senate, he agrees with them that gay marriage would be a societal scourge, he agrees with them that underage girls raped by family members should be forced to give birth - so what's the problem?

It's tough to measure an intangible, but here's my main theory:

Santorum just doesn't come off as "presidential." He's like the kid in your high school class who was always raising his hand, thirsting for a chance to show up his classmates and impress Teacher. He's like the kind of kid who got a book bag for Christmas - and loved it. As Iowa Republican activist Tom Steen reportedly remarked the other day, "He doesn't have that charismatic, initial likability." (And Steen is a fan, no less.) Other top Republicans say that Santorum is a lot like a minivan - a decent enough vehicle, but no sex appeal. No personal magnetism, no memorable lines, no pithy slogans.

Instead, Santorum often rambles discursively. When asked, during a November debate, whether he as president would compromise with Democrats - for instance, taking a deal that gave him 80 percent of what he wanted, even if he had to hike taxes - he answered this way:

"It all depends on what the 75 percent and 85 percent is. If the - if the things that you have to give up make what you're trying to accomplish harder to do - in other words, reduce the deficit, what the Republicans - why the Republicans are drawing a line in the sand, rightfully so, it's because what they're - what the Democrats are attempting to do is increase taxes, which will slow down to the - this economy, which will increase the deficit, reduce tax revenues, ultimately, and - and increase government payments. So you don't work against yourself. You - you won't - you - you take ideas from the other side that you may not find particularly valuable, like spending cuts that you may not want. There are spending cuts that I would like to, you know, I mean there's things that I mentioned before, that I would stand firm on. But in a compromise, yes, you do give up some things that you think maybe are critical spending. But you don't undermine the ability of this economy to grow because of politics...I've worked together, I've got a long track record of bipartisan accomplishments where I kept to the principles. I use welfare reform as an example. Welfare reform, I stuck to my principles. We cut the welfare budget. We had - we had time limits. We block granted to the states and we put a work requirement. Did I compromise on things? Yes. I compromised on some - on some child care. I compromised on - on some transportation. So I got 75 percent. But it 100 percent changed the welfare system because we stuck to our principles."

Got all that?

Which brings me to my second theory about why Santorum has failed (thus far, anyway) to get much traction:

He was a congressman and senator, totaling 16 years. In a climate where voters hate Washington, his background is baggage. Social conservatives are just as hostile to Washington as any other voters. When they hear Santorum boast about a "long track record" in Washington, their alarm bells go off. They tell themselves, "This guy was part of the problem." With the exception of Newt Gingrich, Santorum is the candidate with the longest track record in Washington - and he's the only one who served in the Senate, which is not viewed by social conservatives as a friendly or responsive institution. (And conservative voters seeking an electable candidate may well ask themselves whether a senator who lost his re-election bid by 18 points in a swing state meets the definition of electable.)

Indeed, if Santorum rides out of Iowa with a late surge of support, enough to propel him into the top tier in conservative South Carolina (which stages its primary in mid-January), his tenure as a Washington insider would be scrutinized anew. At his peak, Santorum was the number three man in the Senate hierarchy, at a time when Republicans were closely allied with the corporate lobbyists and influence peddlers on K Street. It was his job to meet with dozens of lobbyists every Tuesday morning. All told, he was a key establishment player; in the world he inhabited, lawmakers and lobbyists practice incestual co-dependence. That's out of sync with today's predominantly populist vibe.

But for now, over the next six days in Iowa, Santorum has a window of opportunity with the sizable evangelical vote. Unlike the departed Herman Cain (remember him?), Santorum hasn't humiliated himself. Unlike Perry, he hasn't gone brain dead on stage. Unlike Bachmann, he hasn't uttered a string of fact-averse gaffes. Unlike Gingrich (who also seeks a share of the evangelicals), he has stuck with the same wife.

If only by default, in other words, Rick Santorum may finally get his boomlet. However modest and ephemeral it may prove to be, he'd take it.

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