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Rick Santorum is First 2016 Hopeful to Visit All 99 Iowa Counties

Image: Rick Santorum

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tours the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, in West Bend, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Charlie Neibergall / AP

ROCK RAPIDS, IA — Pizza Ranch served dozens of pizza pies, a congratulatory message from Rep. Steve King played over the loud speaker, and kids draped in oversized “Rick Santorum for President” t-shirts jumped and laughed on a corn-themed bounce castle.

That was the scene that greeted presidential candidate Rick Santorum as he arrived in Island Park in Lyon County on Tuesday evening, becoming the first candidate of this election cycle to visit all 99 counties of Iowa.

“It’s really an honor for me to be here tonight to say that we’ve done all the 99 counties,” the former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 winner of the Iowa caucuses told a crowd of about 200.

For a candidate who is currently polling in 13th place -- with an average of just 1.3% in Iowa, according to Real Clear Politics -- Santorum is trying to invoke the spirit of his 2012 caucus victory as much as possible, and as early as possible. Last election cycle, he visited all 99 counties by November of 2011.

Visiting all 99 counties of Iowa—or doing a “Full Grassley,” as the feat is named after the Republican Iowa senator who makes such trips annually—in a campaign season has been called “crazy" by some observers. But others praise the strategy, saying it can be invaluable to hopeful caucus winners.

Santorum Is First 2016 Candidate to Visit All 99 Iowa Counties 0:53

"It seems like it quite often turns out that the candidate who spends the most time, effort, and energy in Iowa tends to get rewarded caucus night in their voter turnout,” Cody Hoefert, Co-Chairman of the Iowa Republican Party told reporters Tuesday.

“Anytime somebody takes the opportunity to go to all 99 counties, we want to celebrate that. We want to reward that, because we think it’s critically important,” Hoefert explained.

In a congratulatory video released by the campaign just before the event began, Rep. Steve King linked Santorum’s 2012 caucus win to the candidate’s first completion of the “Full Grassley” in 2011.

"You showed Iowa and you showed America how it pays off to do the shoe-leather tour of Iowa,” remarked King.

Santorum, who has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate so far, picked his final county with purpose.

In early September 2011, the candidate was polling second to last in Iowa in a field of eight Republican candidates but ultimately rose to win the Iowa caucuses come January, with Lyon County giving the candidate his largest margin of victory with 60.9% of the votes.

Santorum brushed off his current low poll numbers Tuesday, saying, “if you look at the Des Moines Register poll, only 12% of Iowa voters have decided…that means 88% of the vote is still out there for you."

Several members of the crowd were from nearby South Dakota and Minnesota, and about 50 of the 200 or so supporters at the event were bussed in from a church in Sioux City on their way to an Iowa Family Leader event at which Santorum was speaking (the bus left with those 50 people halfway through his speech). But the crowd included many true Iowan supporters excited to see the candidate in attendance.

Nate Schulte, a farmer from the Rock Rapids area told NBC News that he was excited to see Santorum again as he had caucused for the candidate in 2012 and was strongly considering doing so again in 2016.

Aaron Rochester, who came on the church bus from Sioux City, believes that Santorum is the best candidate in the field on foreign policy and will likely caucus for him come February.

Rochester, Schulte, and other crowd members suggested that if Santorum were not running, they would be most interested in looking at Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Although he is floundering in the polls and will likely be once again relegated to the so-called “kiddie table” debate in two weeks, the former Pennsylvania senator is having perhaps the best week of his 2016 campaign so far. He completed the “Full Grassley" before any other declared presidential candidate could do so, and at least one old 2012 supporter has come back to his campaign.

Karen Fesler, an influential Iowa Republican and the 2012 Missouri State Director for the Santorum campaign, defected from the former caucus winner this cycle to be an Iowa Co-Chair for Governor Rick Perry’s campaign. On Monday, Fesler abandoned Team Perry and returned to the Santorum camp to be the National Caucus Coalitions Advisor for the campaign.

When asked by NBC News Monday if he expects more of those who left him this year to come back, Santorum replied, “eventually,” and mentioned that all are welcome back who wish to support him again this time around.