Politics & Policy

Santorum in New Hampshire

Rick Santorum in Keene, N.H., Jan. 6, 2012.
He’s going over well ― but is he too late?

Manchester, N.H. — Rick Santorum was minutes away, zooming down Interstate 293, but the fire marshal at Belmont Hall, a banquet center, was already nervous. “Let’s move,” he said, eyeing reporters and Occupy protesters. “Everybody, go to the parking lot, and quick.”

Diners in the adjacent restaurant nodded approvingly; burly cameramen groaned and toted their heavy bags outside. Santorum staffers, unprepared for the audible, hustled out the door with the lectern, and were greeted by a pack of college students holding homemade signs, mostly reading “Google Santorum” and “Legalize Marijuana.”

As the crowd swelled, a pickup truck pulled up, and Santorum was surrounded as he jumped out of the passenger’s seat. With his gray sweater vest and dark jacket, he looked like a math teacher who had stumbled into a Phish concert, surrounded by grungy students and hecklers who immediately pestered him with questions about gay marriage, drugs, and the “99 percent.”

#ad#“Why won’t you debate me?” asked Vermin Supreme, a left-wing activist and perennial presidential candidate. As Santorum shook hands, Vermin Supreme repeatedly screeched the challenge into his bullhorn. Santorum squinted and shook his head. “You mind if I meet some constituents?” he asked.

Your constituents?” an onlooker asked, scowling.

“My potential constituents,” Santorum replied.

As he moved toward the lectern, the questions kept coming. “Is the gay-marriage issue hurting you here?” asked a reporter.

“I don’t think so,” Santorum replied. “We have a very strong record.”

The persistent Vermin Supreme followed. “Why won’t you marry me?” he yelled.

Santorum rolled his eyes. “Obviously you’re going to have protesters,” he said. And then he grinned. “We have a problem of having too many people coming to our events, and then having to bring them outside.”

Once Santorum had made his way across the asphalt, he clasped the lectern, looked down, and sighed. Because of the impromptu setup, there was no microphone. Vermin Supreme offered his bullhorn. Santorum narrowed his eyes as an audience member handed him the device, and kept his fingers far away from the mouthpiece. He set it on the table. “I don’t need it,” he said.

Watching the scene, a nearby journalist wondered: “Who advanced this event?”

A few minutes later, after Santorum had given his usual stump speech, focusing on his blue-collar roots and his plan to revive manufacturing, he opened the parking lot to questions. A group of college students with pro-marijuana signs hoisted one young man onto their shoulders; he stretched his hand into the air, desperate to be called on. “I certainly respect you putting up with all this,” one gentleman remarked to Santorum.

“What’s ‘this’?” Santorum asked. “Look, I come from southwestern Pennsylvania. I represented a district that had more steelworkers in it than any district in America.” He paused and glanced at the sign-wavers. “This is cake. When you’ve got steelworkers, that’s serious.”

But even Santorum, usually a placid, wonky presence, momentarily lost his politician’s poise as stragglers peppered him with questions and barbs. When more Occupy protesters arrived, however, he chuckled, amused at how his “town-hall meeting” had become a gathering place for angry progressives and local kooks. “This is a great venue; this is a slice of life,” he said. “This is like a Fellini movie.” The reference to the surrealistic Italian auteur drew laughs.

Yet the Manchester event, like many this week in New Hampshire, appears to have rattled Santorum and slowed his surge following the near-victory in the Iowa caucuses. After spending months in the Hawkeye State, where he was met at most stops by pensive evangelicals, he is no longer a fringe candidate. As happens with most poll leaders, however, the fringe now comes to him.

#page#On Thursday in Concord, Santorum sparred with another on-edge New Hampshire crowd. Some students challenged him on gay marriage, and to the chagrin of some of his supporters, he forcefully addressed the shouts. “Every child in America deserves to know and be loved by their mother and father,” he told them. “When we deny children that birthright, we are harming children, we are harming society.” It didn’t go over well with the questioners, who booed him.

Of course, in parking lots and elsewhere, beyond the scores of reporters, disagreeable college students, and frustrated leftists, Santorum has also met and impressed hundreds of undecided Republican voters. But a groundswell of support — the kind he needs to challenge Mitt Romney on Tuesday — has so far been absent. Two polls released on Friday show Santorum getting a bounce after Iowa, but it’s probably not high enough to give him much of a chance in the Granite State primary.

#ad#A WMUR/University of New Hampshire survey shows Romney with 44 percent support in New Hampshire; Santorum remains in the single digits, with 8 percent. An NBC/Marist poll puts Romney at 42 percent, with Santorum in third place at 13 percent, a few points behind Texas congressman Ron Paul. Santorum seems to relish his underdog status, describing his poorly financed shoestring effort as an advantage, since it enables him to remain accessible. “I’m answering the questions,” he told me, when I asked him about the biggest contrast between him and Romney on the trail.

Indeed, Santorum’s advisers, well aware of the compressed calendar, are scrambling to adopt the candidate’s retail-heavy Iowa strategy in New Hampshire, sending volunteers to all ten counties and filling the schedule with town halls, meet-and-greet sessions, and talk-radio interviews. Santorum has visited the state frequently in recent months, but his stops before last week’s Iowa shocker were low-key affairs, with few reporters and only a handful of Republicans attending. Now, with most of the region’s television advertising time already bought by other candidates, the campaign’s options are limited.

“We’re focused on retail, door-to-door campaigning,” says Bill Cahill, a senior adviser. “We know it’ll pay benefits this weekend.” Santorum, he says, is spending more time in New Hampshire’s North Country than most candidates, and, much as he performed well in rural western Iowa, he could rebuff naysayers with a large turnout in those areas. “It’s not always about the preponderance of the vote,” he says, and in Hanover and Lebanon, there is promise.

Cahill is hinting at a real, if quiet, bump. Santorum is averaging $1 million in donations per day since his caucus showing, and he’s drawing huge crowds throughout the state. At Windham High School on Thursday evening, over 600 curious voters filled a palatial auditorium, where they warmly applauded Santorum’s long, policy-heavy responses.

“The message about increasing our manufacturing base is resonating,” says Mike Ball, a state representative. Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager and a longtime New Hampshire operative, agrees, but he acknowledges that even if Santorum’s gritty, populist message connects, there may not be enough time to counter Romney’s machine. “We feel we are pretty good in a lot of different places,” he says. “Hillsborough County is obviously important to everybody,” because of its population size, and “there are parts of Rockingham County that are going to be important.” In all of those places and on the Internet, “we’re doing the typical stuff; this is a block-and-tackle game.”

The question is whether Santorum has enough resources to seriously compete. His New Hampshire hopes, advisers say, rest more on pluck than on money; they’re betting that attentive voters will side with him after watching this weekend’s two televised debates. After pouring resources and staff into Iowa, the campaign’s transition to this tiny northeastern state has garnered immense press coverage, but in terms of advance planning, it has been hectic and at times chaotic, as a ragtag band of Santorum confidants scrambles to mount an eleventh-hour offensive.

#page#Biundo, however, notes that Santorum’s New Hampshire organization is only part of the puzzle. Biundo — a former adviser to Pat Buchanan, who won New Hampshire’s 1996 primary as an economic populist and social conservative — thinks Santorum’s firebrand approach can make him a national candidate. He has encouraged Santorum to continue his town-hall-focused bid, with one eye on winning the early states and the other on showing himself to Republicans across the country as someone who dives into debates on the issues.

“We’re not like these other campaigns that look at New Hampshire, give up, and say ‘We can’t be competitive there; we’re going to the South,’” says John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. “We think South Carolina is extremely important, and we’re the only ones who’ve won a straw poll there. But we think that to be a legitimate presidential candidate, you have to, at the very least, be willing to compete in each region of the country, and that includes the Northeast. We’re not expecting to walk into every place and feel like we have to win, but going to New Hampshire lets us continue a dialogue with the country.”

#ad#Whatever happens on Tuesday, Santorum’s staff is ready to turn to the late-January primary in South Carolina, where Romney’s support has historically been soft. A new Rasmussen poll shows Santorum gaining in the Palmetto State, with 24 percent support compared to Romney’s 27 percent. To close the gap, Santorum will take a brief trip there on Sunday to rally his backers.

Then he’ll fly back to Manchester, aiming to surprise on Tuesday. He may not win, and he may not come within eight votes of Romney, but he is confident that he can do well enough, keeping Republicans who are looking for a Romney alternative interested in his candidacy. “Don’t follow, lead,” he told the parking-lot swarm. “Don’t sell out for something less . . . shock the country, the world, and make a statement like you did in 1980,” when Reagan won the state.

After a cheer, Santorum turned his head, looking for another raised hand to recognize, the professor willing to take any question.

“We can’t hear you!” yelled one supporter.

“Use the bullhorn!” roared another. Santorum simply cleared his throat and increased the volume on his next answer, shouting his thoughts about capital gains. He may not have a lot of money, and he’s willing to engage the riffraff, but use Vermin Supreme’s bullhorn? Never.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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