Rick Santorum, the defending champion of the Iowa caucuses, shambles into the Mason City Pizza Ranch on Wednesday, less than a week before the caucuses, looking for hands to shake. One of his staffers is mid-debate with a cashier at the regional pizza franchise; the back room is reserved for Santorum to bribe voters into listening to a final-week pitch from the former senator with free pizza, but there’s some confusion because the staffers have bought whole pizzas but Pizza Ranch is a buffet joint at lunchtime. (So are you paying for pizzas separate from the buffet, or are you paying for the buffets?” asked one attendee.) Santorum pays the matter little mind and instead starts heading for the nearest table of voters. He spots a woman heading toward him.

“How are you?” Santorum asks.

“Full!” she exclaims, patting her stomach as she walks out into the cold.

Four years ago, Santorum won the Iowa caucuses. We didn’t realize that at the time—“Romney Wins Iowa Caucus by 8 Votes,” said the New York Times—but it turned out, after a final count, Santorum was the winner. This was not Santorum’s only victory. In early February, he won Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, and later on, he added North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Glenn Beck called him “the next George Washington.” Twelve men have won Republican primary states in the last 40 years, and Santorum is one of them.

Now, though, on this freezing January afternoon, he is standing in front of the dessert pizza tray as people are trying to get by. Santorum has gone from being the alternative to Mitt Romney to being the guy who is interrupting everyone when they are trying to eat.

Of course, this is what retail politics is, heading from one desolate location to another in order to drum up as many votes as you can. But the contrast between Santorum and Senator Ted Cruz, who filled up an Ottumwa banquet hall on Tuesday—let alone Football Stadium Trump—is nonetheless profound. Santorum has been stuck at the “kiddie table” debates—his words, not mine—since this election cycle began, and he came in 11th in the most recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, ahead of only Jim Gilmore. This guy won this state last time. Now he can’t even beat John Kasich, who not only isn’t campaigning in Iowa very much, he’s even holding a town hall in New Hampshire on caucus night.

Members of the Red Hat Society listen as Rick Santorum speaks at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016.
Members of the Red Hat Society listen as Rick Santorum speaks at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016.

It has to be demoralizing, and to be honest, Santorum is beginning to show it. After making his way to every table in the front of the restaurant—one guy, a carpenter, actually asked him if he’d ever met Donald Trump—he began a speech to the loyalists in the back by saying, wearily, “I think this is my 750th Pizza Ranch restaurant.” That’s a joke, I think, but Santorum has essentially spent the last four years of his life in Iowa. After losing the nomination, and after Romney lost to President Barack Obama, he was back in Iowa within a matter of months. He estimates that he has been in Iowa more than 300 days this cycle, and more than 300 for the 2012 election, which means he has spent roughly 4 percent of his life here. He’s had plenty of time to spend here: Santorum has not held elected office in more than nine years.

This has led him to some rather crusty anecdotes on the campaign trail. He spent a good portion of his speech discussing battles he had with Senator Barbara Boxer way back in 2004. Santorum lacks the energy that he had in 2012, and this even shows in his wardrobe, with an unbuttoned jacket hanging awkwardly over his famous old sweater vest that frankly is doing a lot of work these days. At several moments of his speech, he attempted to call back and remember other appearances he’d made in Iowa, but he couldn’t quite conjure up the name of the town. He punctuates a high percentage of his statements with “as I’ve said before,” as if he can’t even lie to himself anymore that any of this is new.

“Please, eat the pizza,” he says at one point, before catching himself. “Oh, I suppose it’s probably cold now.” He’s still a practiced retail campaigner: He makes sure to give every questioner his full attention and an impressively complete hearing, no matter how nonsensical or confused the question. He’s good at it. But the fire isn’t there, and he has to know it.

Rick Santorum speaks with members of the Red Hat Society at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016.
Rick Santorum speaks with members of the Red Hat Society at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Mason City, Iowa, on Jan. 27, 2016.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

What happened? Well, 2012 might have been a special circumstance. The Santorum boomlet may have been little more than an anyone-but-Mitt wave landing briefly on his shores. But since 2012, other candidates have taken over the territory that Santorum had considered his (and was once considered Mike Huckabee’s). The valued Bob Vander Plaats Christian conservative endorsement that Santorum got last time (and Huckabee did in 2008) went to Cruz this time. The insurgent religious candidate lane was taken over by Ben Carson.

The debate format placed him on the junior varsity team before he ever had a chance to argue otherwise. And there is of course Trump, whom Santorum referred to constantly, was asked about repeatedly, and whom he was reduced to claiming had “stolen my ideas” (via an anecdote about Trump calling Santorum to New York to tell him he loved his book Blue Collar Conservatives). It was always going to be a bank shot for Santorum this go-around, but this was a particularly poor showing for the defending Iowa champ. The contours of the race simply never bent his way.

Santorum has spent more time in Iowa over the last four years than any other candidate in the race, so I asked him if he was starting to feel like a phase of his life was coming to an end, if he was gonna miss this place. The caucus, after all, is only a few days away. But Santorum, who had just Monday hammered USA Today on Facebook for trying to “force us” out of the race, was particularly wary of this line of questioning. “It’s just another step in the process,” he said. “It’s this state, then the next one. I’ve had a wonderful time in Iowa. I look forward to having a wonderful time in New Hampshire.” But you’ve spent so much time here. Surely you must be somewhat—“This race is moving forward,” he interrupted. “Iowa’s just another step in the journey.”

But considering Santorum’s place in the race, and how much he seems to have been eclipsed by Cruz, Carson, and Trump (and really, everyone else), the last four years of trips to Pizza Ranch Mason City and Pizza Ranch Urbandale and Pizza Ranch Jefferson have to feel, ultimately, like a waste of time, money, and energy. Santorum still has a few days left in this state—he has actually upped his appearances in a last-week push—and obviously won’t say so. But his eyes say otherwise. He looks tired, and how could he not? Santorum has been campaigning in Iowa for the past four years, a candidate for president of the United States. And as a guy in a jacket, imposing on people’s lunch.

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