SIOUX CITY — Four years ago, pastor Cary Gordon of the Cornerstone Outreach Church was among the first prominent evangelicals to endorse Rick Santorum in Iowa. That set off a chain of other prominent endorsements, with a last-minute thumbs up from Bob Vanderplaats helping to carry Santorum to an effective tie for first place.

"It's deja vu for me," Santorum said this morning from the behind the pulpit at Cornerstone Outreach.

Of course, four years ago, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum was surging in state polls. This year, he's at 1 percent in a 12-candidate field.

Santorum's message today was, fittingly, about finding victories among defeat. "What you and the world may see as success," Santorum said, "isn't necessarily what God sees as success."

Four years ago, after Santorum addressed the congregation, Pastor Cary gave Santorum five smooth stones, "because I was the David going up against the Goliath…. to slay Goliath.

"To the world, that didn't happen."

Santorum's story Sunday morning, however, suggested otherwise.

One of the candidate's daughters, Bella, has Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome. After the South Carolina primary, Santorum's wife called to say Bella was getting ill. Santorum returned home and found her "literally deathly ill. ... We couldn't keep her breathing up. ... She was just struggling to stay alive."

So the Santorums rushed Bella to the hospital. Santorum said his campaign staff told him that he needed to give a reason for abandoning the campaign trail. Santorum resisted: "I don't want to bring my personal situation" into the politics, he said.

His staff finally convinced him "just announce that your daughter is ill, and ask people to pray for her. And leave it at that."

"That's what we did."

At the hospital, "we had every expectation we were going to be in it for the long haul. The last time she got this sick, she was in the hospital for a month." An X-ray revealed her lungs were filled, and she had pneumonia. "We sat there at the bedside Karen and I, and we just prayed," Santorum said. "This probably is the end of the campaign."

They expected she would get sicker and be put on a ventilator.

"The next morning they did another X-ray, and her lungs were perfectly clear." The congregation let out exclamations at the point and raised their hands towards heaven.

"It's a miracle."

But that wasn't the point of Santorum's story.

When it was clear Bella was truly recovering, Santorum decided to return to the trail, starting in Missouri. At a hastily assembled rally in St. Charles County, Santorum found a giant overflow crowd.

"I walked inside this room, and I'm thinking 'why are all these people here?'" Santorum then looked down and saw two people in wheelchairs. This struck him as interesting. He then saw a man with a little girl on his shoulders. "I looked at her, and she had Down Syndrome."

"I remember looking over and seeing this little girl with Down Syndrome, and she's waving a sign as fast and as hard as she can. And the sign said 'I'm for Bella's dad.'"

He said that every campaign stop until the end, Santorum encountered disabled people. One said, "Thank you for witnessing to the value of my life."

This was his victory in the context of defeat.

"That moment of tragedy for us, we were able to show the world that very value."

As Santorum put it: "The smooth stone hit the target."

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.