Here’s one name you haven’t seen here at Hot Gas quite so much this election cycle… at least so far: Rick Santorum. After a somewhat shocking start to the 2012 election trail, followed by a gritty, “outlast everyone else” campaign against Mitt Romney, Santorum seemed to have cemented a place as a serious contender in national GOP politics. Further more, he’s made no secret that he’s interested in another grab at the brass ring this time. But where is the splash for him this year? One reason for the lack of media coverage is that the former Pennsylvania Senator hasn’t been resonating nationally this time. The RCP poll of polls is still showing Santorum at 2%, leading only Kasich and Jindal. Some pollsters have stopped including him in the lineup.

But if he’s going to shine anywhere, it should be in Iowa. That was the scene of his greatest victory last time and the home of an electorate which has traditionally been a great fit for his style of politicking. And yet, as National Review’s Brendan Bordelon reads the tea leaves, Santorum has been striking out in corn country too.

Rick Santorum was the returning champion at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum on Saturday. But inside Waukee, Iowa’s Point of Grace Church, it certainly didn’t feel like it. After his upset victory in the 2012 Iowa caucus – driven largely by the state’s powerful evangelical voting bloc – many expected the former Pennsylvania senator to be welcomed back with open arms. But compared to the other eight Republican candidates present at the Des Moines-area conference, Santorum’s speech fell strangely flat.

The audience didn’t clap much, and when they did it was usually polite and perfunctory. Lines that felt like they were meant to be showstoppers were at times met with awkward silences. Part of that may have been due to his choice of subject matter. While speakers like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal emphasized Christian credentials and Rand Paul and Scott Walker pushed muscular foreign policies, Santorum was selling a populist economic message that didn’t seem to land.

He called the Republican Party’s supply-side, free trade message outdated and pushed for a minimum wage hike. “We’re keeping down the wages of American families,” he said. “We need to say we’re on the side of American workers.”

Have Iowa audiences changed or has Santorum’s message? It might be a little bit of both. The free trade issue was obviously going to be a huge risk with conservative audiences. I’m so far in the minority on this one among the GOP that I rarely even bother writing about it. (I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence that the “benefits” of free trade deals have even begun to scratch the surface of the tens of millions of jobs we’ve lost to outsourcing in critical manufacturing jobs and middle class, non-post graduate tech jobs which now go to Asia and South America. When you hook a full pool like America to the shallow pool of underdeveloped regions, the results are predictable.) The messaging in favor of these trade deals is, by this time, bred into the DNA of conservatives and the GOP at large, so Rick was totally wandering off the ranch there.

Where he came up with the idea of boosting the minimum wage at a federal level is even more of a mystery. That one is a non-starter for pretty much all of us. But both of these platform items have one thing in common… they are populist fiscal messages which run far afield of the Christian, social conservative message which vaulted Santorum to popularity in 2011 and 2012. He’s been generally solid on foreign policy, but that’s one place where essentially the entire field (with the possible exception of Rand Paul) has been in lockstep, so it doesn’t buy him any advantage.

Is this new messaging what’s deflating Rick Santorum’s balloon? I’m not so sure. The trade thing isn’t helping him, but there may also be a general sense among the primary voters that Rick had his chance. People are probably looking to move on and hoping for a fresh face. Brendan Bordelon mentions in his article that Rick surprised the world once and could do it again. That’s possible, but the field of play has changed. Santorum thrived last time by essentially being the last man standing for the “Anyone But Mitt” crown. At the moment, there are plenty of contenders for the “Anyone But Bush or Christie” title, and many of them are attracting a following. It’s going to be a tough run for Santorum this time, I think.