Santorum Adjusting to Star Treatment on Trail

A crowd of well-wishers and autograph-seekers surrounded Rick Santorum at an event hall here this week. The place was packed; dozens of men, women and children stranded outside stood in the cold just to catch a glimpse of him.

PLANO, Tex. — A crowd of well-wishers and autograph-seekers surrounded Rick Santorum at an event hall here this week. The place was packed; dozens of men, women and children stranded outside stood in the cold just to catch a glimpse of him.

Andrew Lopez of Yukon, Okla., prayed with Rick Santorum at a rally Thursday at the Magnuson Hotel and Meridian Convention Center in Oklahoma City.

People approached him with tears in their eyes. They gave him cowboy hats, personal notes, quilts sewn for his seriously ill 3-year-old daughter and envelopes with checks inside. His campaign had raised $1 million online in 24 hours. Earlier, at a nearby hotel, he had to apologize to those hoping to have their pictures taken with him, explaining that he had a television show to get ready for.

But as Mr. Santorum made his way through the crowd, he was asked if anything felt new. “No, no,” he said. “The same old, the same old.”

Of course, that was hard to believe: This was the Santorum campaign, post-trifecta.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Santorum stunned the political world by winning the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and a nonbinding primary in Missouri, reviving his flagging candidacy. On Wednesday and Thursday, at a series of campaign stops in the suburbs north of Dallas and in Oklahoma, Mr. Santorum took advantage of a burst of momentum and campaign donations that have followed his three victories. Though overtaking Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, is still a formidable challenge, Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has become as much of a political rock star as he has ever been in his life.

As his remarks suggest, he has had a curious reaction to the sudden attention — he is trying to make it seem natural and inevitable, carrying himself not as an upstart or an underdog, but as a front-runner. In his speeches in Texas and Oklahoma, he cast his main rival as President Obama, not Mr. Romney or Newt Gingrich, his rival for the conservative Republican voter.

“We need to have someone who’s going to go out and paint that vision of what America looks like versus Barack Obama,” Mr. Santorum said on Wednesday evening in the Dallas suburb of Allen. “We need to make him and his failed policies the issue in this race. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m the best candidate to do that.”

Though he may want to sound like a front-runner, the reality is that he has neither the organization nor money that a front-runner in a national race usually commands.

And his support among social conservatives, meanwhile, is hardly assured: the endorsement he received shortly before the South Carolina primary in January from a group of evangelical leaders and Christian conservatives meeting in Texas did little for him then.

“The voters took a serious look at him in Iowa, and then his poll numbers dropped precipitously, when they decided he wasn’t ready for the biggest job on the planet,” said Jim McGrath, a Republican strategist in Houston who is a supporter of Mr. Romney’s. “He pops up with a big night earlier this week, and he should be congratulated for that. But there’s nothing to indicate that there is a durable confidence in Santorum in this bump that is any different than the last bump that faded. His political stock has been a little shaky.”

Mr. Santorum’s three wins seemed to have had the biggest effect on those who came to see him this week. The more they swarmed around him trying to see what was causing the surge in momentum, the more they created the surge of momentum they were clamoring to see.

“I love that he carries the family values with him,” said Becky Boydstun, 37, a stay-at-home mother from Frisco, Tex., who stood on a bench outside the packed barn-style hall in Plano trying to hear his speech. “When you don’t put yourself up on a pedestal, when you can relate to people on a general level, it draws them to you even more.”

As he has throughout the campaign, he linked conservative social values to economic prosperity. In Texas, he prayed with a group of pastors, met with Tea Party activists and told the members of the Republican Women of North Collin County that a strong family unit is not only good for the country, but also good for the economy.

In Oklahoma City on Thursday morning, he was scheduled to speak at a gun range and shooting sports complex, but because of the expected turnout, the event was moved to the ballroom of a nearby convention center. Mr. Santorum addressed roughly 1,000 people about the dangers of big government and attacked President Obama’s health care, energy and economic policies.

Near the end of his one-hour speech, he pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket — calling it “the operator’s manual for America” — and recited the opening of the Declaration of Independence, pausing at the word “Creator,” so the audience could say it out loud, which they did.

“Our rights don’t come from the government,” he said.

Before Thursday, Max Lubitz, 25, a military officer who is on leave at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, had been torn between voting for Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Santorum. After watching Mr. Santorum, he said he would support him. “I think this speech sealed it for me,” he said. “The electricity was alive in the room.”

A give-and-take unfolded at his events in Texas and Oklahoma. The confidence and ease Mr. Santorum has displayed on the stump in the days since his three victories has fed into — and off of — his audience’s confidence and enthusiasm in him.

At one point in his remarks in Oklahoma City, Mr. Santorum mentioned Oklahoma’s 43 Republican delegates.

“They’re all yours!” someone shouted, to applause.

To his supporters, everything was a sign of Mr. Santorum’s new popularity and electability: the line of cars waiting to get into an event, the fact that he was running late because he had a television interview, even his style of delivering a speech without notes.

“Folks, we don’t need a reader-in-chief, we need a commander-in-chief,” he said, referring to Mr. Obama’s use of a teleprompter.

But his digs at the president are not what people talk about as they crowd around him to shake his hand. It is his 3-year-old daughter, Isabella, or Bella, as she is known, who has a fatal chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 18. Bella’s struggle is the emotional undercurrent of his campaign and, for his supporters, has become inseparable from Mr. Santorum’s appeal as a Christian conservative who opposes abortion.

“When she got pneumonia, he stopped his campaign,” said Stephanie Broardt, an Oklahoma City stay-at-home mother who stood on a chair to watch his speech. “He strikes me as a good father. That’s another reason why I love him, because he’s a family man. Other candidates cannot say that.”