Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum go to the wire with very different Iowa campaigns, supporters

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Santorum in Iowa. (Rick Santoum, via Facebook)
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Ben Jacobs

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DES MOINES — Apparently Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are both top-tier contenders in the same election in the same state. But based on their final events last night on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, it’s hard to place them in the same universe.

Santorum’s last event was a 6 p.m. meet-and-greet at a Pizza Ranch in Altoona, a blue-collar suburb of Des Moines. The area around the Pizza Ranch, a local Iowa chain renowned for its $9.95 buffets and western theme, is filled with suburban townhouses and apartments. Directly across the street is a branch of Family Video, a chain of video stores that carries an extensive collection of soft-core pornography, albeit one carefully separated from more child-friendly fare.

Voters piled in helter-skelter, in total disorder. At one point, a group of reporters was pinned against the salad bar.

The crush was so severe that Santorum had to make two different speeches, the first to a group mostly consisting of assembled media in the restaurant’s “party room” that was televised on C-SPAN, and another via a bullhorn to the Iowans in the main dining room of the restaurant.

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Romney’s event was held at 9 p.m. in the town of Clive, a prosperous suburb of Des Moines. The location was a warehouse on a bustling strip of car dealerships and strip malls. The event was carefully planned and heavily staffed. There were risers for television cameras and desks with outlets carefully arranged for travelling press who needed to file. The audience area was roped off and arranged to make the minimum number of people appear to take up the maximum amount of space. The lights were bright and the lines of sight carefully thought out.

There was, momentarily, a whiff of unruliness, when a mix of Occupy protesters and Ron Paul supporters showed up. But they were evicted by the local police, before and during the event, without having had much of a chance to cause a scene.

The contrast between the attendees at the two events last night was just as stark.

The voters at the Romney event that I spoke to were disproportionately self-identified “moderate Republicans.” Some identified with Robert Ray, who served four terms as Iowa’s governor, from 1969-1983. To be a Bob Ray Republican in Iowa is almost synonymous with what being a Rockefeller Republican means nationally.

These were Republicans like Bruce Cahill, who supported Romney so strongly that he wrote him in for the 2008 general election, although he meant it as much as a protest against Sarah Palin as anything else.

There was also Lin Sorenson, who told me that she supported Romney for his business skills, but was actually pro-choice.

The attendees at the Romney event, for the most part, didn’t seem to care particularly about social issues. Dave Nelson, of Johnston, Iowa, described social issues as “not important” and a “diversion.”

Ralph Pantoga, a onetime Herman Cain fan who still harbored hopes that Cain would get the vice-presidential nod, said he was in fact a social conservative, but that he supported Romney because of his “business knowledge.”

Jim Major of West Des Moines, described himself as “not too conservative.”

The attendees at the Santorum event I spoke to last night were mostly social conservatives who, like, Sue Rees, “liked his stance on gay marriage.” (Although Sue also thought the former two-term senator from Pennsylvania was “cute.” Her husband Lou was indifferent to this characterization.)

Many of the Santorum supporters, reflecting what polls say has happened all over Iowa in the last couple of weeks, said they were very recent converts to his cause.

Lowell Whistler said that he couldn’t understand why Santorum wasn’t catching on in the early going, but that he only finally decided to support him in the past few days.

Cindy Huntronds, of Collins, who caucused for Mike Huckabee in 2008, said she was leaning toward Santorum because of his “family values.”

The people at Santorum’s last rally, pretty much without exception, had no use for Mitt Romney.

Don Bigner described Romney as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Lucy Vaughn, a kindly older lady, whispered in my ear that Romney was “a white Obama.”