Earlier, I wrote about Rick Perry’s late push in Iowa, and how the momentum from a couple of very good debates could convince some conservative caucus-goers to return to his banner. That could also be said about Rick Santorum, whose performance in the last two debates this week looked more polished and presidential. His campaign has worked on a shoestring and relied more heavily on an incredible number of personal appearances in all 99 counties in the state. Santorum hits the airwaves today in Iowa with his first ad, an introductory spot that uses supporting words from some heavy conservative hitters:

None of the three people mentioned — Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Mike Huckabee — have actually issued an endorsement in this race to Santorum, or anyone else, either. However, Santorum hopes that their praise for his commitment to social-conservative principles as well as his achievements in Congress will convince voters that he is truly a reliable alternative to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — and also to Perry and Michele Bachmann, who will be spending more money and time in Iowa as Santorum makes his play.

Melinda Henneberger profiles Santorum for Washington Post readers today, offering Santorum a rare media highlight and a positive one at that:

Rick Santorum has just come out of a campaign event at Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the GOP presidential contender says he received the “typical college-crowd” questions challenging his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But when he was their age, he felt differently about those issues, too.

“Rooster” Santorum, as he was known, thanks to his cowlick, from seventh grade all the way through Penn State, wasn’t too devout back then, and the only social issues on his screen involved beer and cigars. When he and his wife started dating, in their 20s, she was living with an OB-GYN who not only performed abortions but also had founded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic.

Asked about it now, the former senator from Pennsylvania doesn’t act as if he thinks this is the shame of the city or anything: “She had been, yeah. When we met, she was in the process of getting out of that relationship. But we all go through changes in our lives.’’ It wasn’t until he ran for office for the first time, at age 32, that he chose a side on the abortion issue.

And he’s still less harshly judgmental than advertised. Through most of his political career, one of his most trusted staff members was an openly gay man in a committed relationship. When he came out to his boss and offered to resign, the man says, Santorum’s immediate response was “Well, I don’t hate you, I love you, and I want you to stay.” What’s more, the man said, Santorum told him he would never expect him to pretend or say anything he didn’t actually believe.

Long stalled at the back of the Republican pack in polls, Santorum says all he needs to do to stay in the race beyond Iowa is exceed the media’s sub-basement expectations for him in that state’s caucuses on Jan. 3: “I just have to convince folks we’re not only the candidate they can trust” — and here he pauses for a minute to give directions to his driver and one-man travel team — “but the one who can win.’’ To get the media attention and money that would make that possible, he reasons, he has to be the candidate who supplies the surprise of the night at the caucuses.

The ad itself is excellent, and Santorum couldn’t have hoped for a better profile than this at the Post. Can he use his retail politicking to pull off a surprise in Iowa? It’s a long shot, but the decline of Gingrich and the inability of Romney to get above 25% has left the door open for someone to win an upset victory, and it may be easier for a candidate who hasn’t blown a boomlet already to do so.