santorum20iowa

After 13 presidential debates, who-knows-how-many polls and seven major Republican candidates left in the game ... the 2012 presidential election officially begins today. As the GOP contenders face off in the Iowa caucuses, here's campaign news to know.

1. Seemingly out of nowhere, Rick Santorum rocketed to second place in Iowa. Despite placing dead last in most polls until now, in the Des Moines Register's final poll he jumped to 22 percent -- just one point behind Mitt Romney's razor-thin lead, and ahead of Ron Paul's third-place position. According to the Register, Santorum's dogged efforts in the state could pay off:

The former Pennsylvania senator embodies the old political saw: Work like hell and get lucky at the end. He's logged over 100 days in Iowa, more than any other candidate, toiling in virtual obscurity. Caucusgoers are traditionally inclined to reward such persistent courting.

But the boost doesn't mean it's Santorum's game. "His surge is less about him and more about the fact that there are no other viable conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney," Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University, told The Root. "I think it will be Romney, but we're splitting hairs with the top three so closely bunched. Nobody will be able to claim a whole lot of momentum."

2. Curiously, Republican Iowa caucus-goers will not be required to show photo ID in order to vote. Last year Iowa Republicans pushed heavily for a voter-ID law -- a measure that passed in the statehouse but was ultimately blocked by a Senate committee. As the Huffington Post's Brad Friedman explains:

The Iowa Republican Party runs its own state caucuses, determines the rules, tabulates all the votes and announces the results to the public and media themselves. They have complete control over the entire process, and yet they don't bother to ask their own voters to show a state-issued photo ID before casting their ballot. I wonder why that would be?

Friedman hypothesizes that the state push for a photo-ID law was never about creating tighter restrictions for Republican voters. Rather, the legislation targets other citizens, such as the Democratic-leaning blocs of minority and youth voters, who would participate in general elections. (Or maybe the party just had a change of heart about the whole thing?)

3. Despite the attention on Iowa, the Obama administration says it's not interested in engaging with the candidates (although the re-election campaign has a strong operation on the ground). In a Tuesday-morning White House briefing, senior officials said their focus is on the economy and, in a surprising show of optimism, working with Congress to pass legislation. Just a few weeks ago, they pointed out, House Republicans loosened their blockade to pass a two-month extension of the payroll-tax cut.

But with no other signs of cooperative spirit -- on Sunday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told 60 Minutes that brinkmanship is simply "part of the legislative process" -- hopes for bipartisanship in 2012 sound really naive. Yet Fauntroy thinks it makes sense. "Congressional approval rating is around 9 percent, and of the incumbents who have been obstinate in moving forward with the president's agenda, some of them are going to have difficult races," he said. "Some of them are going to have to demonstrate that they actually did something -- and that may well dislodge some of the obstruction."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.