MARSHALLTOWN, IOWA – After months of being unable to get TV to cover him, Rick Santorum was having trouble hearing his own voice, what with all the TV covering him. He had arrived for a “town hall” session Friday night at a restaurant on a shopping strip here followed by the same media horde that had crowded into his previous stop, a sports bar in Ames where he had arrived for a photo op with Iowa State fans watching their team in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl (don’t ask.)

The media pack wasn’t a problem for Santorum at the sports bar, other than the fact it was ticking off the hundreds of Cyclone fans who cared a lot more about the game than the caucuses (“Hey, there’s a game going on!” fans hollered more than once at the guys with the booms). After all, all Santorum was doing at the sports bar was ordering some wings and donning his new Cyclones gear (his aides pressed a jersey on him, but he instead insisted on a sweater vest in the team’s red and gold colors.) But the pursuing throng was more of a problem at the restaurant, because Santorum was supposed to actually talk to voters who had gathered there to see him and they and the cameras couldn’t all fit into the small room set aside for the event, and he had no mike to amplify himself. Instead, the restaurant TVs were switched to C-SPAN, which was covering the event, so that people in the larger spillover room could hear him that way. Except the broadcast lagged behind him, and so he had his own voice in the room, trailing behind him as he spoke. “Am I hearing myself in the background?” he said, shaking his head at the odd handicap.

Not that he minded. Santorum is conspicuously thrilled by his turn in the spotlight, like the kid in the after-school movie who thinks no one likes him and comes home to the sudden light and roar of the surprise party. And indeed, the boomlet we are witnessing may be the most fantastical yet this season, the ultimate proof of media fickleness, circa 2011. Consider: For months, Santorum was the guy down at the end of the debate stage complaining, plaintively and justifiably, about being shut out of the discussion. Now, in a matter of days, he has become the guy whose arriving Dodge Ram truck sets off the mad dash of a half-dozen cameramen from the front of the sports bar to the rear to capture the exit from the vehicle; who grins through a Carl Cameron interview on Fox News as a dozen reporters crane for snippets; who arrives at the next stop with Mark Halperin tumbling out of the Ram beside him.

What will come of it? This year has proven what a fool’s game even four-day predictions are, and I’ve learned, after several of these cycles, to be wary of media-generated momentum. After all, most of the people in that jam-packed sports bar were going to be watching the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, not going to caucuses; it was the cameras, not the crowd, that were making Santorum seem like a sensation. For now, then, I’ll stick to a quick primer on what Santorum is presenting to the voters who have been paying attention, because I’m realizing that my assumptions, and those of many others in the pack, have been somewhat off in that regard.

There has been a tendency these past few days to compare Santorum with John Edwards and Mike Huckabee, who also enjoyed last-minute Iowa surges in 2004 and 2008, though even theirs were visible further out than Santorum’s has been. But reporters, myself included, have also been tempted to more broadly align Santorum with Huckabee on substantive and stylistic grounds, and this is a mistake. In my case, I had been struck particularly by the fact that Santorum was the only one in the Republican field who is voicing anything close to the populism that helped carry Huckabee along with his evangelical bona fides in early 2008 – Santorum talks frequently about lost manufacturing jobs and declining social mobility and his middle-class, first-generation American roots in western Pennsylvania. I speculated earlier in the week that it was this part of his message that was driving his appeal as much as his social conservatism, and I noted that he was already being slammed as suspiciously empathetic and egalitarian by the Club for Growth types. I asked him about this criticism today at the sports bar, and he shrugged. “I just want to make sure that everyone has a chance at participation and opportunity,” he said. “Keep criticizing me for that. I encourage it.”

But that was before I heard him speak, for well over an hour, to the voters here in Marshalltown. It did not take long at all to be reacquainted with what really drives Rick Santorum – what I would not have needed reminding of, had he been given more airtime on those debate stages. It is not populism, even of the Sam’s Club Republican variety that animated Huckabee – Santorum may talk about helping manufacturers and “blue-collar voters,” but he also wants to slash the capital gains tax rates, a boon to the wealthiest, and declares that Barack Obama believes that "free enterprise is a failure." Nor is it the happy warrior underdog spirit that carried both Edwards and Huckabee, grinning and joking, on their Iowa runs. No, far from it. It is the fire of the true culture warrior, come storming back from the 1990s for a final battle royale.

Here are just a few snippets from this evening, spoken with a vehemence bordering on anger.

On the decline of the family, which Santorum believes is at the root of most of the country’s woes:

“Thirty years ago the percentage of people married over the age of 18 in America was 71 percent. Today it’s 51 percent. As the family breaks down we have to build more prison. As the family continues to break down, we’re going to build more prisons and we’re going to be less free. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what’s at stake. We have a president who explicitly accepts this.”

On the need to slash government after an era of what he sees as excessive Republican accommodation to "the left," a phrase that peppers his speech:

“Now we have a group in Washington thankfully as a result of the last election and we have candidates running for president who are saying no more. We are not going to compromise by doing less of what the Democrats do and call that a good compromise…Now we’re going to say, no, The era of big government, in Bill Clinton’s term, is over. That was a lie then. Under Rick Santorum we will make it stick.”

He buttressed this moments later by telling a young man who advocated for programs like AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity that, whatever good they might do, there simply wasn’t justification for the federal government to be involved in this arena. The young man seemed dumbfounded. “Programs like these, you cut them and you’ll be building more prisons,” he said as he sat back down. “You can’t find a more family-friendly program than Habitat for Humanity.”

On the threat of hedonism:

"What comes with freedom? Freedom and responsibility. Freedom isn't a right to write whatever check you want, to perform whatever actions you want. There are some, even some unfortunately in our party , some who are running for preside, who believe that freedom is to do whatever you want to do. Just, you know, freedom is use drugs, participate in anything you want, as long as you aren't hurting anyone directly...We cannot last long as a country with people living lives that aren't responsible....Happiness today is enjoyment, pleasure, what makes you feel good, that's what makes you happy. At the time of our founders, one of the principal definitions was the freedom to do the morally right thing...rights given us by God to serve him in our lives, that's the moral foundation of America."

On why he’s stronger on abortion than his Republican rivals:

“I don’t believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception…. We concede ground when we use terms that make it sound like an article of faith, instead of a biological fact.”

And on Iran, where he all but declared that Obama is betraying his country:

“If we do not deal with the situation with Iran right now…there is a much higher probability…your children are likely to be harmed right here in this country …Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979…The parallels between this president and Jimmy Carter just become eerily apparent. Iran on the rise, Iran causing problems in the Straits of Hormuz, you see Iran developing a nuclear weapon now…America [in 1979] was led by a president frozen, feckless, unable to deal with crises on his lap. Here we have Obama…frozen, unable to act, afraid to upset anybody, refuses to impose those sanctions. This is a parallel that is starkly apparent….Barack Obama has said that Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon but has done virtually nothing to stop them…He’s afraid that if we upset Iran we’ll hurt oil production and the economy…The president is guessing, hoping Iran won’t develop the nuclear weapon between now and November and so he’s willing to risk…He doesn’t want to disrupt the economy, which might hurt his reelection chances. He’d rather hope that Iran somehow isn’t able to get a nuclear weapon so he can get reelected. This is the sadness I feel deep inside for our country that we have a leader who doesn’t have the courage to protect our country.” (emphasis mine.)

Is Rick Santorum the real deal? In terms of this crazy caucus, we’ll find out Tuesday. On the ideological level – no question, Rick Santorum is the real deal. Don’t let that sweater vest fool you – it’s an armor shield.