Is Rick Santorum finally a serious contender? The former Pennsylvania senator has surged into third place in the final stretch before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, according to a new CNN/TIME/ORC International poll — a remarkable development considering that the devout Catholic has been polling at or near dead last for much of the campaign. But now, Santorum, who has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate, is seeing his investment pay off. His poll numbers have tripled since the start of December, and the staunch social conservative is now in third place, at 16 percent. Mitt Romney leads with 25 percent, followed by Ron Paul — who topped PPP's poll this week — with 22 percent. Newt Gingrich has plummeted to fourth place, at 14 percent (a shadow of the 33 percent Newt had in the last CNN poll). Who benefits the most from this new order in Iowa?

This is a big win for Santorum: Everything is lining up for Santorum, says Alexander Burns at Politico. Gingrich is fading, Santorum is bagging endorsements from several high-profile Christian conservatives, and now he's seeing some "tangible sign of momentum" in the polls. Not only did he finish third in the CNN poll, but a PPP survey revealed that Santorum boasts the highest net favorability rating of any candidate in Iowa. "Those are the kind of optics a cash-strapped candidate can't buy," and suggest that Santorum is poised to absorb disillusioned supporters of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and possibly become a real threat in the race.
"Who won the day? Rick Santorum"

Actually, this helps Romney: Santorum's rise plays right into Romney's hands, says Philip Klein at The Washington Examiner. The ex-senator's surge essentially knocks Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann out of the picture, leaving Iowa a three-man race between Romney, Paul, and Santorum. That's a race Romney could very well win. But even if Santorum siphons votes from Romney, and Paul ends up winning Iowa, the former Massachussetts governor comes out ahead, because "Paul is unacceptable to large swaths of the GOP electorate." And if Santorum somehow manages a win? That's also fine with Mitt, because Santorum "lacks the resources to compete seriously beyond Iowa." 
"CNN Iowa poll: Romney leads, Santorum surges"

And Santorum still has a huge uphill battle: Santorum may be gaining momentum, but "momentum works a lot better when you have money and organization to help carry it forward," says Allahpundit at Hot Air. The only way the cash-strapped Santorum can become a "real long-term threat" is if he and Paul finish in the top two in Iowa, and then Paul "shocks Romney in New Hampshire." That highly-unlikely chain of events would "leave Romney smelling like a loser and would set Santorum up for a possible win in South Carolina." Even then, it's unlikely that Santorum could outlast Romney in the long slog to Super Tuesday. At best, Santorum can hope to suffer along as the "lone remaining alternative" to Romney and Paul for "conservatives who can't stomach either."
"CNN Iowa poll: Romney 25, Paul 22, Santorum 16, Gingrich 14"