Full of it. Gage Skidmore/via wikimedia commons

Put simply, Rick Santorum's rally in Tacoma on February 13—the first pre-caucus appearance in Wash- ington State by any Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon—could have gone better.

Members of Occupy Tacoma embedded in the crowd repeatedly mic-checked Santorum. Activists started a pro-gay-marriage chant that silenced the candidate for something like two minutes. The concrete plaza in front of the Washington State History Museum, with its sweeping coliseum-style seating, was a perfect echo chamber, muddling Santorum's speech and the shouts of protesters into a dull, angry roar. (Three Occupy protesters would eventually be arrested.)

About halfway through the post-rally meet and greet, Santorum was glitter-bombed by a University of Puget Sound student. More accurately, Santorum was glitter-bukkaked. Glitter cascaded down the front of his sweater vest and through his hair, and his giant forehead shone in the flashes of photographs like Ke$ha had just vomited on it.

But Santorum's decision to rally in Washington on the same day that Governor Chris Gregoire signed the marriage-equality bill into law was a shrewd move. With the issue so fresh in their minds, conservatives will surely connect their feelings of anti–marriage equality to Santorum, and not Mitt Romney, when they vote in less than two weeks. Frustrated anti-gay-marriage conservatives were blowing off steam everywhere. A man carrying a sign that read "Go Rick/PRO-LIFE/PRO-NORMAL-MARRIAGE" ranted at someone who asked him what a "normal" marriage was. Gay marriage, the man explained, "is sick. It's against nature. Nature itself says it's wrong, not to mention the Bible."

Curiously, Santorum didn't mention gay marriage at the rally. In fact, his only real mention of marriage came early in the speech, when he led a round of applause for his wife of 21 years. But the thing is, he didn't need to mention gay marriage. Santorum met privately with anti-marriage-equality leaders in Olympia earlier in the day, and everyone at the plaza knew his stance on gay marriage. By keeping the dog-whistle politics in the high, unspoken range, Santorum could combat his image of being an anti-gay hatemonger while still, well, hatemongering against the gays.

This single well-timed appearance by Santorum was the equivalent of buying millions of dollars of TV commercials before the March 3 caucuses. It's the kind of savvy political decision that the Romney machine, with its big-money momentum and tendency to overplan every decision, can't seem to manage. For the first time in recent memory, the Washington State Republican caucuses will be competitive. Nobody has polled in Washington (and polls are notoriously unreliable in caucus states, especially this year), but the race seems to be up in the air. The state's all-inclusive caucus rules, which say that any registered voter is allowed to caucus with either party, would appear to favor Ron Paul. Romney tends to do well with Republicans in Western states. And Santorum just identified his intentions on the state by committing the boldest political act of all: He bothered to show up.

Not every Santorum applause line at the rally was squashed. He announced that President Obama is "not a man who understands America" and scoffed at the idea that Washington wasn't a conservative state: "This is a blue state? No way. This is a state that treasures freedom and opportunity."

As his people shepherded Santorum inside the museum and away from a difficult event, they must have believed the mess was worth it. Santorum has been overperforming in caucus states and, though Romney was rumored to be considering a Friday trip to Washington State, those plans have apparently been scuttled. Instead, before the Santorum rally, the Romney team hosted a conference call to announce the support of Washington State representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, making this the second "high-profile" Romney endorsement to take place here within a week. The first? None other than former state senator (and serial election loser) Dino Rossi. In a Republican contest where the distance between first and second place has often come down to a couple hundred votes, Santorum's messy, angry, bigoted Tacoma rally debacle may well look like a brilliant decision in hindsight. recommended