Heated Exchange Exposes Santorum’s Hurdles in New Hampshire

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum arrives at a campaign stop at the Tilt'n Diner in Tilton, New Hampshire, Jan. 5, 2012.

Concord, New Hampshire

The frantic pace of the presidential-primary calendar doesn’t allow for long victory laps. “Game on,” a triumphant Rick Santorum declared Tuesday night in Iowa, but by that time the expectations game in New Hampshire was already whirring. The nation’s first primary contest is tricky terrain for Santorum. Paced by a strong caucus showing, he is vying to stake a claim as the social-conservative standard bearer in South Carolina — a thorny assignment in a week when he’s likely to run headlong into the Romney buzz saw. The spin from Santorum’s aides is that his views dovetail nicely with New Hampshire’s flinty, fiscally conservative, heavily Catholic electorate. 

But the Granite State is not Iowa. Santorum’s strident social conservatism held a special resonance with the Hawkeye State’s heavily Evangelical caucusgoers. New Hampshire is different, as Santorum found when students at a college convention in Concord booed him off the stage after a heated exchange.

Held in a capacious hotel ballroom, the event had a freewheeling format that was unusual for the tightly choreographed dance of presidential politics. Santorum was preceded at the lectern by a Reform Party presidential hopeful named Robert Steele, who was admonished by a member of the crowd for swearing. A few young Ron Paul supporters taunted Santorum as he took the stage. The candidate looked loose and relaxed, having ditched the sweater vest for a casual blue button-down, and his speech about American exceptionalism — whatever you make of his views — was a useful reminder that one of the reasons Santorum emerged from the Tea Party bracket in Iowa was his depth and eloquence.

(MORE: Santorum’s Path to and from Iowa)

By agreeing to take questions, Santorum knew he was inviting a confrontation with college students over his staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage. His stance on marriage equality came up right off the bat. To his credit, Santorum didn’t dodge the issue. Instead, he sparred with a series of hostile questioners in a lengthy, quasi-Socratic dialogue. Santorum said his view was that heterosexual marriage “is something society should value and should give privileged status over a group of people who want to have a relationship together.” By turns inquisitive and imperious, he tried to consider students’ arguments and then knock them down. He suggested that those who want to change laws prohibiting same-sex marriage face the burden of showing why that is necessary.

The questioner, a young woman, invoked Santorum’s earlier comments about liberty and happiness being among the inalienable rights “endowed by our Creator.” There were claps and hoots.

“So anybody can marry anybody else?” Santorum asked. “So anybody can marry several people?”

No, several people yelled back; nobody was advocating bigamy. But having selected this slippery-slope argument, Santorum pressed ahead with it. “So if you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people, is that O.K.?”

The response drew scattered shouts, jeers and boos. “Are you stupid?” someone in the crowd called out. “O.K., maybe we can’t do this,” Santorum said. “I’m happy to engage in a discussion, and I’m calling on people and giving them a chance to answer, but we’re going to have a civil discussion or we’re going to move on to another question.” He deserved kudos for that; instead, his exit from the podium sparked a chorus of boos.

The skirmish underscores the challenges Santorum faces as he scrambles to channel his Iowa momentum into a second stellar showing in the snows of New Hampshire. His strident social conservatism may chafe here, and not just with college kids; despite being a heavily Catholic state, residents don’t wear their religion on their sleeve. “I definitely did not appreciate the way he put down some of those young people,” says Barbara Morris, a Concord resident and Pennsylvania transplant who supported Santorum’s Senate bid and thought he did a good job on Capitol Hill but doesn’t know whom she’ll vote for on Tuesday.

Santorum’s aides recognize that repeating their retail-driven success in Iowa requires scaling quickly. In a poll released Thursday, he edged into third place in New Hampshire at 8%, far outpaced by Romney’s 41%. Santorum has visited New Hampshire 30 times, among the most of any GOP candidate, but he faces a financial and organizational deficit that can’t be bridged in a week.  “You always want to win, but obviously Mitt Romney’s been there for eight years now,” says Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager and a New Hampshire native. “We feel good about our chances, but we have to overperform as we did [in Iowa].” Hopscotching the state with the same vigor that nearly clipped Romney in the Iowa cornfields, he has scheduled 17 stops in three days before attending a pair of debates this weekend. His goal: to keep pace for the bigger test that comes next.

On Sunday, Santorum will steal a day in South Carolina, which holds its primary just 11 days after New Hampshire’s. It is the battleground where the social-conservative standard bearer must make his stand against Romney or lose his shot at the nomination. That’s why Santorum, suddenly flush with $2 million in donations in two days — nearly twice his total fundraising haul through Sept. 30 — plans to dump a chunk of that cash into a Palmetto State ad buy. But he needs to avoid a rout in New Hampshire first. And as he acknowledged Thursday, that’s no easy task. “The chance in five days to make up a 35- or 40-point lead is going to be pretty limited.”

Correction appended, Jan. 12: This story originally misidentified Robert Steele, the Reform Party candidate who spoke before Santorum, as Robert Greene. The latter is a Democratic presidential candidate. 

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