And now the spotlight shifts from Iowa to New Hampshire as the GOP gets serious about choosing a candidate for president.

Throughout December, the Politics Column focused on GOP candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul and their connections to Western New York. Little did it occur to the Politics Column -- or most others -- to concentrate on Rick Santorum.

But the former Pennsylvania senator came from nowhere to virtually tie Romney in the Iowa caucuses last week, and now Santorum is very much in the picture. That means he's beginning to stir up the local faithful, too.

County Legislator Kevin Hardwick, also a Canisius College professor of political science, is emerging as Santorum's top local supporter. He told Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy (a Romney guy who is helping locals involved in other campaigns) a month ago that he would be on deck if Santorum survived Iowa. "At that time a lot of people were laughing at me," Hardwick said late last week. "Nobody is laughing now."

Hardwick likes what he sees in the newest darling of the GOP's right wing. He first encountered Santorum while escorting the College Republicans of Canisius to the 2009 C-PAC conservative conference in Washington. He said Santorum -- then a defeated senator -- "hit the nail on the head" in analyzing the party's losses.

"He said Republicans were unprincipled, unethical and incompetent," Hardwick said. "I thought this guy was impressive, and that he may take off."

The legislator has reached out to the campaign to offer help, all with the idea that maybe -- just maybe -- the process will continue through April 24 and the New York primary.

That could be wishful thinking. Many see Romney cleaning up this week in New Hampshire and gaining momentum for South Carolina and Florida. But others note the former Massachusetts governor's failure to climb in the polls. They point to Santorum as the latest "flavor of the month" to emerge as a conservative alternative.

Still, Hardwick just happens to have a doctorate in political science -- tempered by political street smarts earned along the way. Though Santorum has little money or organization, the professor thinks momentum counts -- especially with Rep. Michele Bachmann out, Texas Gov. Rick Perry all but out and Gingrich struggling.

"He can survive, especially with Bachmann out, Perry [almost] out, and Gingrich playing the role of suicide bomber," Hardwick said, adding he sees Gingrich and Paul as "wild cards" more intent on stopping Romney than winning the nomination. That, he says, drapes Santorum in credibility.

"If he carries on past Florida this thing could go on for a while," he said.

Maybe it's wishful thinking for a political junkie like Hardwick. But for those entranced in the give-and-take of the GOP fray, there would be nothing like a good, old-fashioned New York dogfight.

* * *

* New Hampshire will meet its share of Buffalonians helping their candidates in the Granite State this weekend. Carl Paladino, who was endorsed by Gingrich in his 2010 campaign for governor, is working there for the former speaker.

Businessman Tony Gioia, the former ambassador to Malta, will also be in Manchester Tuesday with other members of the Romney finance team.

* And in one of the classier local political moves, new County Clerk Chris Jacobs -- a Republican -- recognized the outgoing acting clerk -- Democrat John Crangle -- by presenting him with a bison statuette during Jacobs' inaugural ceremonies a few days ago.

Crangle is retiring after 39 years with the Clerk's Office and Board of Elections before that, but will remain in the fray as the Town of Tonawanda Democratic chairman.