ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- Former Senator Rick Santorum's 11th hour rise up the Iowa Caucus polls is a testament to the theory that ground work and face-to-face conversations are the best forms of voter persuasion. That he's done it all with the barest bones of campaign infrastructures is even more remarkable.
The Pennsylvania Republican's top surrogates are not fellow political travelers or elected officials. They are members of his family, who do everything from driving him around the state to working members of the press. And in Iowa, the most ubiquitous of these surrogate-family members has been Santorum's 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
In the past two months, the eldest of Santorum's seven kids (the youngest, Bella, is three years old) has spent most of her time in the Hawkeye State, save for a trip to their family's home in Virginia for Christmas break and a jaunt to South Carolina earlier this fall to make speeches about her father's then-stuck-in-first-gear presidential ambitions. Under normal circumstances, the curly-haired brunette would be a junior now at the University of Dallas, heading out to sporting events or parties with her fellow students. This past Saturday, her social function was a dinner with Iowan voters who were supporting her dad.
"It's neat because as his daughter you get to wear a lot of hats," she said as she watched her father conduct an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Saturday. "You're the chauffeur one day, you get to help as press assistant. You get to see everything, from making phone calls in the office and setting up yard signs to the funding to the grassroots to the media."
Rick Santorum likes to joke that there are two benefits to having his kids serve as campaign workers. The first is that he doesn't have to pay them. The second is he doesn't have to pay a year of college tuition.
Like Elizabeth, the former senator's 19-year-old son, Jon, has put academics aside to assist with his father's presidential ambitions. But while Jon tends to shy away from the spotlight (he quietly held his dad's Joseph A. Bank suit bag while the candidate talked with reporters at the Manchester, N.H., airport in mid-October), Elizabeth has gamely embraced campaign life. At events, she usually stands in front of the room as her father makes his speeches, looking at her father intently even though she has heard his stump speech many times -- possibly hundreds, given his 350-plus appearances in the state.
On Sunday she stopped a question-and-answer session when it got too long, stepping in to remind her father he needed to appear on CNN. Elizabeth works the crowds with her dad, shaking hands and smiling, but she also scans the room and keeps time to make sure things are running smoothly. When there are crowds -- as there always are in recent appearances -- she helps direct people forward, coaxing supporters to stand near the front rather than huddling back in hallways.
She maintains a Twitter account with 315 followers -- the Huntsman girls have 19,200 -- and frequently retweets campaign reporters and @FearRicksVest, an account run by a staffer from the perspective of Santorum's trademark sweater vest. "It's funny; it's a good bit of humor to the campaign," she said with a laugh.
She said she has not had media training or been coached by anyone on the campaign, and writes her own short speeches to deliver at solo appearances. But she exhibits the type of message discipline that would make some candidates envious, coming off wiser than her age. Nearly any question, no matter the topic, tends to work back to her father's positive attributes, be it about the difficulty of campaign life or the type of music they listen to in the car.
"I do a lot of independent speaking -- and a couple interviews -- by myself, so it's been really great training," she said, smiling and positive. "My dad is also great at cultivating me and encouraging me to grow myself through this time and learn how to speak well and trusting me."
It's been this way for a while. In 2006, Elizabeth made her first foray into the campaign meat-grinder when she was tasked with narrating a campaign ad for his floundering senate campaign. An aide for the senator, at the time, called her "very mature for her age," predicting that this would be "just the first of many areas of involvement ... to come."
The presidential race, six years later, has, she says, been a "joyful experience." But it's not one without quirks and challenges. It is tough, after all, being a young surrogate for a candidate and father clinging to an older worldview. Her father's stance on same-sex marriage and gay rights, in particular, has caused some friction from non-supporters.
"It's a policy thing, he thinks this is the right thing for America and the foundations of our country," she said of gay marriage. "People are entitled to live the way they want, but to project those values and say those are the best values for our country are a different thing."
Opposed to same-sex marriage herself, Elizabeth said she has gay friends who support her father's candidacy based on his economic and family platforms. But her father's doctrinaire opposition to change on these fronts has made her the occasional target at school and on the trail -- "never aggressively," she said, though "obviously, there are certain people that aren't [respectful]."
She is aware of her father's so-called "Google problem," part of a campaign by columnist Dan Savage to redefine the candidate's last name after he compared same-sex relationships to bigamy, polygamy and incest. "Savage and his perverted sense of humor is the reason why my children cannot Google their father's name," Rick Santorum wrote in a letter to supporters earlier this year.
"That just makes me sad. It's disappointing that people can be that mean," she said. "That's really the first thing that comes to mind, it's hurtful. But it's okay, we just try and focus."
In the next two days, that will mean more campaign stops, more calls and more Santorums on the trail. Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, and six of his seven children will join him in Iowa on Tuesday for the final lead-up to the caucuses, while his youngest daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, will stay at home in Virginia with a nurse and babysitter.
"We got buttons made with her picture on them that say 'Go Dad,' so she'll be here in spirit," Elizabeth said.