Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, an apparent wind at his back, drew flak from a rival on Thursday, a day he spent in the Quad-City area urging caucus-goers not to settle and throwing a few elbows himself.

Santorum was making stops in Muscatine and at the Center for Active Seniors Inc. in Davenport, where he drew a crowd of about 250 people, as he made a final push toward the Jan. 3 caucuses.

At the Button Factory restaurant in Muscatine, he urged caucus-goers to “do what you are supposed to do — and that’s lead.”

He urged people not to settle for any candidate, but to select one who is a conservative across the board.

For months, Santorum has foundered in the bottom tier of GOP candidates, even in Iowa, a state he’s poured a lot of time into. But that changed Wednesday afternoon when a CNN poll put him third at 16 percent, behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. The network said he had gained 11 points since its last survey.

That bump was enough to earn him a spate of stories about a surging campaign. And perhaps more important, it appears to be getting people to give him a fresh look.

Steve Maher, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Muscatine, is one. He was among 80 to 100 people at the Button Factory restaurant, where Santorum held a town hall meeting.

“I think a lot of Iowans are going to go back and reconsider Rick Santorum. That’s what I’ve done,” said Maher, who left the meeting planning to caucus for him. “I’d love to see him in the White House.”

Maher previously had been backing Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., but he said he had concerns about her campaign. Bachmann’s chairman, state Sen. Kent Sorenson, defected Wednesday evening to Ron Paul, and he and the campaign were engulfed in a back and forth about why he left on Thursday.

In most recent polls in the state, Romney and Paul have consistently been toward the top. But as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has slipped, the perception of a surging Santorum may swing to his column some of the vote that, thus far, appears to have been divided among other candidates, especially Santorum, Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

It apparently is enough of a concern to the Perry campaign that it began airing an ad criticizing earmarks Santorum sought while a senator from Pennsylvania. A new radio ad, in the style of a game show, said Santorum had “demanded a billion dollars of earmarks in his 16 years in Congress.”

“In-deedy-duty! Santorum’s proud of feeding at the earmark trough in Congress. Soo-ee pig,” the ad said.

In a meeting with the Quad-City Times editorial board, Santorum defended himself.

“Steve King did earmarks. Chuck Grassley did earmarks,” he said, referring to two Iowa Republican lawmakers. Santorum said the way federal spending is divided isn’t the issue, it’s the level of spending and that he had consistently voted for smaller budgets.

Santorum took some shots of his own.

He renewed criticism of Paul, who has said fears over Iran getting a nuclear weapon are overblown. Santorum said Iran is “on the precipice” of acquiring one and added: “Iowa needs to send a message that we want a candidate who is not in the Dennis Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party running for president under our ticket.” Kucinich is a liberal congressman from Ohio.

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On a question about immigration, Santorum appeared to distance himself from Gingrich’s belief that illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for 25 years and have established connections in the community ought to be allowed to stay, although not be given citizenship.

“There are people in America today who are mothers and fathers who break the law,” he said. “We punish them.”

He also compared his own nearly 360 town hall meeting with Bachmann’s bus tour that has compressed visits to 99 counties into a short period.

“We weren’t speed dating,” he said.

Santorum’s day was filled, as usual, with a bevy of town hall meetings and other events. And his crowds are growing larger, he said, even as the gathering the Button Factory was far smaller than the 400-plus who packed a coffee shop just up the hill for Romney the day before.

Still, Santorum’s new polling success has had some benefits. He began the morning on MSNBC. After noon, he was on Fox News. And this Sunday, he’s scheduled to be on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In the editorial board meeting, Santorum said he hopes the new exposure will get his message across to people he thinks haven’t really looked at him seriously yet.