Rick Santorum says goodbye to Iowa

Past Iowa winners struggle in new era
Past Iowa winners struggle in new era

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Story highlights

  • Barring a miracle, the Iowa caucuses will likely mark the end of Rick Santorum's long quest for the presidency
  • On Sunday night, his campaign assembled devoted volunteers, friends, family and supporters for one final Iowa hurrah

Urbandale, Iowa (CNN)Barring a miracle, the Iowa caucuses will likely mark the end of Rick Santorum's long quest for the presidency.

On the eve of the caucuses, without conceding defeat, Santorum gave a proper goodbye to a state that has served as a second home to him, and at times, his entire family. On Sunday night, his campaign assembled devoted volunteers, friends, family and supporters for one final Iowa hurrah for the man who pulled off a jaw-dropping surprise victory in the state four years ago, but hasn't been able to catch a break in the Era of Trump.
    About forty die-hard Santorumites joined together in a private room at a Pizza Ranch restaurant. The evening was full of nostalgia, sadness and hope, and a pinch of denial, to celebrate a man who hosted more than 700 events in the Hawkeye State.
    "It has been an honor. It really has," Santorum said. "I hope we have another opportunity, but my guess is that when we come in on Air Force One, we're not going to have these types of deals because we're going to have a country to run."
    The crowd laughed, lovingly, knowing that what he said wasn't true and probably would never be.
    For Santorum, Iowa in 2016 was supposed to represent a land of triumph, as it was four years ago. It was here after months of slogging across the state with little to show for it, he suddenly began to gain traction just before the 2012 caucuses. Against the odds, he defeated Mitt Romney by just a handful of votes. But by a twist of cruel fate, the caucus ballots were counted incorrectly and he wasn't declared winner until long after it mattered to give him the bump he sorely needed. He still went on to become Romney's chief rival in the 2012 primaries, and lasted until April, long enough to give put himself in respectable second place.
    Santorum had thought his runner-up status would have earned him respect with voters and with the party in 2016, but the country had changed. He would be like Ronald Reagan, a man who also won 11 states and returned the next election cycle in victory and transformed the conservative movement, he suggested to audiences across the country.
    But Santorum again struggled. This cycle was even more difficult for him, as he had to share attention with Donald Trump and was always relegated to the media ghetto of humiliating "undercard debates," which were never held in prime time.
    But he slogged on, hoping that lightning would strike twice.
    On Sunday, while much of the evening was focused on the positive, Santorum used the opportunity to vent his frustration with a process that he contends kept him down. For months he, and other candidates, have complained about the debate process, and the media's relentless wall-to-wall Trump coverage.
    "It's very frustrating for a lot of us. But I can't really blame a lot of the media for focusing attention on somebody who's going to make them money," he said.
    Santorum, however, didn't train his anger on the media, as other candidates so often do. For him, the real responsibility for the state of the race lay at the feet of the Republican National Committee.
    "It's one thing if you're a profit-making company...it's another thing to be sanctioned by the Republican National Committee," Santorum said, his voice suddenly sounding louder and angrier. "And because of that sanction, you have a responsibility beyond just making money. The RNC did not hold these new channels to the standard that should be required, which is that everybody one of our presidential candidates will be treated with dignity and respect. Period. Everyone. There is no under-card! There is no kids' table! Everybody is treated with respect. Why? Because they are running for the nomination of our party, and we demand it. But they never did."
    In the corner of the room stood Foster Friess, Santorum's billionaire super PAC financier from Wyoming, wearing a beige wide brim hat and cowboy jacket that looks more Sundance than Sioux City. Over the past few years, Friess has funded Santorum's efforts by writing multi-million dollar checks to his super PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund. He has remained fiercely loyal to the Pennsylvania senator the entire time in both good times and bad. And on this final night, he was here to see it through the end.
    "Think of the witness that he gives," Friess told CNN. "I don't care if he doesn't make it to dog catcher. I'm willing to pay for this guy's example of being a bridge builder, of being civil, of having politics work like it should. The money I've spent was well worth it to get the message out."
    Friess declined to say whom he might support if Santorum drops out.
    Santorum used the night's opportunity to take questions, just like his hundreds of other townhall meetings. One person asked about his relationship with Israel, another about his plan for Obamacare -- and he answered them in detail.
    When it came near the time to end, Santorum made his final appeal for his small band of true believers to fan out to the caucuses and put up a noble showing for him on Monday.
    Santorum reached the dramatic crescendo of his emotional and heartfelt pitch to the small number of loyal and adoring Iowans gathered with him. The part where he tells them -- as he has been saying for the past five years, in town hall meetings and in cold church basements and those wretched dawn breakfasts with the greasy eggs and the Lincoln Day suppers and in rural diners where only one person would come to see him -- that it's up to them to vote their conscience. Then a loud cell phone rang in the audience, turning everyone's gaze to the back of the room instead of on the senator giving the most important part of his final speech in a state he has painstakingly devoted the past half decade of his life.
    Santorum didn't stop: "If you lead tomorrow, I'm telling you, you will set this race on a completely different path. You did it four years ago."
    The questions that naturally follow -- who will Santorum endorse? How will he pay off his tens of thousands of dollars in campaign debt? Where does a man like him go from here? -- could be answered at another time.
    When Santorum finished, the campaign's Iowa State Director, Walt Rogers, presented him with a shirt and fleece bearing the logo of the Pizza Ranch restaurant, where Santorum held more than 120 events over the years.
    "No matter what happens, we're going to miss you," Rogers told him. "We look forward to what God has in store for Rick Santorum."
    As the event was about to conclude, a woman in the back stood up, waved her arms and shouted over the room, "Can we pray?"
    Rogers put his arm over his boss, and delivered the Santorum campaign's benediction.