DES MOINES -- Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum held final rallies in the Des Moines area Monday night before Iowans go to the caucuses, and the contrast between the two campaigns could not have been greater. On the one hand was the poorly-funded back-in-the-packer enjoying an emotional boost in the polls while still trailing badly in organizational strength. On the other was the rich, powerful, and organized juggernaut hoping to knock out much of its competition before the fight even begins. In the suburbs of Des Moines Monday night, the GOP contest came down to the Gritty Underdog versus the Death Star.
Santorum chose to deliver his closing argument in a Pizza Ranch restaurant in suburban Altoona -- a reasonable choice, given that Santorum has visited about three dozen Pizza Ranches during his travels across Iowa. A small room in the back was filled with some supporters and a lot of media, and Santorum spent a few minutes speaking to them before repeating some of his remarks in the restaurant's main room.
Everything about the event, like everything about the Santorum campaign, screamed underdog. The crowd, while far larger than those Santorum attracted earlier in the campaign, wasn't really large. (As Philip Klein has noted, the event was like many others in this GOP campaign, booked in a tiny room so that the press might report a "packed house.") There was no sound system, or maybe just a terrible sound system; Santorum at first tried a bullhorn and then, giving up, picked up a microphone that put out a weak sound in the back of the room. Of course, the room was so small that that no sound system was actually needed.
In his speech, Santorum was emotional in that exhausted, night-before-election-day way that comes on candidates after a long campaign. He stressed to Iowans that he had taken the trouble to travel all around the state, meeting people from every corner of Iowa. He said the amount of time he has spent in the state is a sign of the respect he feels for Iowa and the caucus process. And he begged voters not to decide their vote on the basis of who might have the best chance in the polls against Barack Obama. Just do what you think is right, he said. All in all, it was an almost touching, very human end to a campaign that was long on human contact between candidate and voters.
Romney's rally, held a couple of hours later at a commercial sign company office in Clive, Iowa, was vastly different. For one thing, it was big, with perhaps 500 people piling into the building housing Competitive Edge, a company making customized advertisements on pens, cups, shirts, and the like. The rally, with music blasting, had the feel of a big-money general election campaign rally.
Despite the bigger crowd and louder music, Romney did not receive a particularly warm reception. Speaking at the end of a long day, his delivery was energetic yet at the same time a little flat and uninspiring. Applause lines were few and far between. The crowd's biggest reaction came when a few Occupy protesters started yelling things at Romney -- he politely let them have their say -- and the crowd began chanting "MITT! MITT! MITT!" to drown them out.
Nothing was particularly notable about the rally except the way it projected power and confidence. The Romney campaign has gone all out in Iowa in recent days, and one unmistakable message of its rallies is that it is a wealthy and powerful force. Romney's decision to push hard in Iowa, as well as to remain in the state for a rally and media interviews on caucus night suggests the campaign is, in the words of one close observer, "beyond confident."
Attending the Santorum and Romney rallies was almost like the experience in 2008 of attending a John McCain and then a Barack Obama rally. One sent out a message of determination in the face of steep odds. The other sent out a message of sheer power. "We're going to win this thing with all our passion and strength," Romney said at an earlier rally. Emphasis on strength: The Romney campaign is by far the most powerful in Iowa, and that was Romney's real message on the eve of the caucuses.