He's not pulling a Chris Dodd and moving his family there, but Rick Santorum is well aware that his performance in Iowa -- starting with the Ames straw poll in August -- is vital to his slim hopes for the Republican presidential nomination. So on Saturday he's returning to the Hawkeye State for the second time this week (we've lost track of his overall visits) to attend a conference for homeschooling families and, more importantly, open his first campaign field office in the state in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb.

Santorum already has hired a politically connected Iowa staff and repeatedly made the rounds to see the state's GOP insiders -- who may or may not have pools. Establishing a physical presence is another sign of his commitment to the state and makes him neighbors with Tim Pawlenty, who's considered a far more realistic candidate for the nomination (even though his economic plan may not be).

In a new analysis today the oft-quoted University of Virginia politics guru Larry Sabato lists Pawlenty as the only other front-line contender besides no-tie Mitt Romney, and he's not bullish on Our Rick's chances. He puts Santorum in the third tier of candidates and says Herman Cain has more momentum (ouch):

Three other candidates, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) and ex-Govs. Gary Johnson (NM) and Buddy Roemer (LA), haven’t broken out either. Santorum’s appeal is limited to some social conservatives so far, and even many of them wonder how a senator who lost his Senate seat by 17% in 2006 can credibly claim to have the right electoral stuff to beat Obama.

The Schedule: Tireless Rick has (count 'em) nine radio and TV appearances today on national and local outlets.

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