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Noirin Hegarty: Could Rick Santorum give Barack Obama a battle for the White House?

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Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) speaks during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop on January 1. Photo: Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) speaks during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop on January 1. Photo: Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) speaks during a campaign stop at the Daily Grind coffee shop on January 1. Photo: Getty Images

RICK Santorum. Remember that name. For unless he breaks the cardinal rule of US politics by getting caught with a "dead girl or a live boy", this just might be the man to give Barack Obama a run in the 2012 Presidential race.

The Catholic father of seven home schooled children, who is an arch conservative, was beaten by Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by just eight votes in the Iowa Primary – the first of a marathon run to be the contender.



But he electrified the campaign with an emotional and religious speech in the early hours today, as his supporters sang hymns and US political commentators licked their lips in anticipation of a thrilling primary season.



Referencing his wife as the person “who knows the song in my heart” and naming each of his seven children, including disabled Isabella (3) who was given just a 1pc chance of surviving her first year, he spoke movingly as the votes rolled in.



He painted an evocative picture of the large hands of his coalminer grandfather who fled facist Italy.



And he reached out to the people Barack Obama once accused of holding onto their guns and their bibles. “Thank God they are,” he said.



“By standing up and not compromising, by standing up and being bold and leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step,” he told supporters.



Commentators now expect that the focus of Romney’s campaign, until now directed at discrediting Newt Gingrich who was leading the polls until last month, to turn on Santorum.



So if there are any skeletons in his cupboard expect to learn of them in the coming days. You can be sure Romney’s people are already in overdrive and they will have rich pickings in his views on contraception and homosexuality among other highly conservative positions.



Although Romney’s failure to capture the conservative vote will limit the damage he may be prepared to do on this front.



Santorum’s success is being credited to getting the Tea Party vote as well as the backing of the evangelicals and conservative republicans.



He crept up from behind without significant media scrutiny or much of an attack from his competitors.



But Santorum’s message, God and jobs, could have wider appeal in a recession-wracked United States.



Will blue-collar America be satisfied with Obama’s explanation that turning around the economy is complex and takes time?



The more immediate question for Santorum however, is how much of an impact he can make on New Hampshire where Romney is polling in excess of 40pc?



Aware of the battle he faces in a state where his conservative views will not be as welcome, Santorum referenced the economy repeatedly in his ‘victory’ speech.



Flanked by his wife and six of his seven children, he passed the first important political test - he came across as likeable.



In a performance reminiscent of Obama himself, his populist approach was warm and sincere.



By comparison Romney, looking tired, gave a muted and somewhat strained address to supporters prompting fresh questions about whether he can connect with the public.



Insiders say that donations to Santorum’s campaign have mushroomed in the last week and he will need a war chest to compete with multi-millionaire Romney.



Later today the campaign steps up a gear with former Republican candidate John McCain expected to endorse Romney. It is seen by many as payback for Santorum’s endorsement of Romney, rather than McCain, four years ago.



The question republicans are now asking is whether Romney, who got 25pc of the vote in Iowa in 2008, identical to his performance today, is able to break that ceiling?



And is Rick Santorum the bold conservative challenger who can see him off and get a run at Barack Obama?



As Santorum himself said today: Game on.