His challenges were on display this week in Tacoma, where hundreds of supporters waited on cold, wet cement stairs in the dark to see the Republican presidential candidate with whom they're barely familiar.
"I don't know a lot about him, except I know he's more conservative than some of the other candidates like Mitt Romney," said Tanya Franklin, a 54-year-old airline reservationist, who says she'll probably vote for Santorum in her state's March 3 caucuses.
A Virtual Tie With Romney in Polling
The former Pennsylvania senator has surged to a virtual tie with Romney in nationwide polling following his surprising sweep in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last week. But, as Franklin suggests, his popularity may have less to do with who he is than who he isn't. Santorum is not Romney. And with Newt Gingrich's recent decline, that's enough for some conservatives -- at least for now.
Santorum had 30 percent support to 28 percent for Romney in a national poll released this week by the Pew Research Center. But the same poll said 31 percent of all adults had never heard of or couldn't rate him. That's a significantly higher number than for Romney, Gingrich, or Ron Paul. Even among Republicans, one in five told Pew they didn't know enough about Santorum to rate him.
Romney and others are now working to make sure that changes.
The long-time front-runner for the nomination, Romney has deployed surrogates such as a former Santorum Senate colleague, Jim Talent of Missouri, to attack Santorum's support for earmarks in Congress. The conservative Club for Growth has been equally critical. And Romney has been aggressive on the campaign trail, suggesting in recent days that Santorum and Gingrich represent the kind of overspending Washington insiders the tea party abhors.
Women and Family Issues
At the same time, left-leaning groups such as the Center For American Progress and Emily's List are going after Santorum's comments on women. A staunch social conservative, Santorum has been critical of women serving in combat and sometimes in the workplace.
"Sadly the propaganda campaign launched in the 1960s has taken root," reads a passage in Santorum's book. "The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness."
"These things that Rick Santorum is attacking are broadly supported by women and American families," said Tara McGuinness of the Center for American Progress. "It isn't 1952. Most American families have two working parents."
Santorum says he's not going to sit back and just take such shots.
Pressing the Fight in Romney's Michigan
On Tuesday, he began running ads on Fox News Channel in Michigan. It was a signal to supporters -- and to donors -- that Santorum planned to contest the state where Romney grew up and his father served as governor.
Look for Santorum to emphasize his message on manufacturing revival, especially in hard-hit Michigan. He plans a Thursday economic speech in Detroit, and his advisers see an opening to use Romney's words against him -- especially Romney's 2008 New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
Sensing vulnerability, Romney tried to pre-empt that in an op-ed Tuesday in The Detroit News. He argued that the government should sell its share in automakers and return the profits to taxpayers.
At the same time, Santorum's advisers are bracing for an onslaught from Romney. They were largely spared in the last trio of states -- Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
"We fully expect his search-and-destroy methods to be put on display. That's his M.O.: instead of focusing on his own record, their first inclination is to tear down his opponent," said Hogan Gidley, Santorum's communications chief.
Limited by a Small Organization?
But there are limits to what Santorum's little team can do.
He refuses to hire a pollster and pledges to campaign from his gut. He has brought on veterans from Mike Huckabee's orbit, including the top spokeswoman for Huckabee's 2008 presidential bid and Michele Bachmann's 2012 race. Other aides, too, are coming aboard as Santorum's strategy meetings have grown from just one state to a handful of competitive races.
Yet he lacks a headquarters to have those meetings. Often, Santorum's top aides confer over conference calls or Skype.