Hecklers and Hostile Crowds Stymie Santorum in New Hampshire

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Hollis, New Hampshire

It was a scene fit for a front-runner: an overflow crowd spilling out the doors of a Rockwellian barn on Saturday afternoon, kids perched in the rafters, an American flag tacked to one wall. The only thing missing from this perfect New Hampshire tableau was the candidate.

Rick Santorum was running 30 minutes late, and so a surrogate stepped in to warm up the restless crowd, which had broken out into chants of “We Want Rick!” According to a show of hands, more than half were media and political tourists; others turned out to be detractors bent on challenging his conservative views. When he arrived, Santorum was buffeted by tough questions on touchstone issues: abortion, gay rights, the role of religion in government.

This has been the story of Santorum’s stint in the Granite State. Since arriving in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, fresh from fighting Mitt Romney to a virtual tie in Iowa, the former Senator has been the biggest draw around. But his appearances have been marred by conflict, controversy and organizational missteps, raising questions about whether a candidate vying to position himself as a big-league alternative to Mitt Romney can do so with a minor-league campaign—and avoid becoming the latest candidate to fizzle out after fleeting success.

(MORE: Heated Exchange Exposes Santorum’s Hurdles in New Hampshire)

Santorum has stuck to the script that drove his Iowa surge, holding 15 town-hall style meetings during a brutal 72-hour stretch capped by a crucial debate double-header. The jam-packed schedule hasn’t helped so far. Santorum turned in a tepid performance Saturday night, and by Sunday morning he’d slipped into fifth place in a Suffolk University daily tracking poll, notching just 8% of the vote. As he scrambles to convince conservatives to coalesce around his candidacy, his momentum may be faltering, in no small part because of the bludgeoning he’s taken at the hands of skeptical voters.

Santorum’s decision to play to win in New Hampshire rather than channel his limited resources into the crucial battleground of South Carolina has mystified Granite State Republicans, who say he has inflated expectations in a state he had little shot at capturing. Santorum’s aides argue their decision to contest New Hampshire was a way of demonstrating the candidate has the ability to win swing states in the general election. “We thought we could be very competitive here,” says John Brabender, a senior Santorum adviser. “We understand it’s Romney’s backyard home. We understand Huntsman’s basically lived here. We understand they’ve been spending a fortune. But we think it’s incumbent on somebody who wants to be President of the U.S. to go to each region of the country and not put up a surrender flag.”

Instead of showcasing this swing-state appeal, Santorum’s series of freewheeling town halls has been marred by his habit of picking fights he can’t win. On Saturday, a massive crowd at a general store in Amherst forced Santorum’s event outside, where he stood atop a picnic table near the edge of a frozen pond and took questions from a chippy crowd. Later, Occupy protesters chanted in the background as he taped an interview.

(MORE: Santorum’s Path To and From Iowa)

These kinds of kerfuffles have been fixtures of his Granite State swing. A Friday event in Manchester was shut down by a fire marshal, forcing Santorum to address the teeming throng of press, protesters and hecklers in the parking lot without a microphone. That same day, he visited a prep school in tiny Dublin, N.H., where he was repeatedly challenged on same-sex marriage by high school students and called a “warmonger” by one of their parents. Those rebukes were similar to the ones he received the day before from a cadre of college students in Concord, who booed as he left the stage after comparing gay marriage to polygamy. Wherever he goes, he seems to court controversy.

“He’s trying to conduct everything in a very respectful manner,” says Brabender. “He’s trying to be very clear that there’s going to be occasions where he disagrees with people, but he still respects their opinion. I think overwhelmingly it’s been positive.” It’s true Santorum has toned down the truculence he flashed in early debates. But the locals have not.

In moderate New Hampshire, the series of skirmishes “could put a ceiling on his path to growth,” says Rich Killion, an unaffiliated New Hampshire GOP strategist. “If Santorum was driving a tight economic populism message that seemed to be emanating from his Iowa caucus night speech, I think he’d find a greater catalyst for growing his coalition here.”

Santorum has buried the populist elements of his platform and biography, including a plan to zero out the corporate tax on manufacturing, under layers of verbiage. His town halls have been marathon affairs, beginning with a discursive stump speech that whipsaws from Alexis de Tocqueville to Social Security, from Khrushchev to the intricacies of Griswold v. Connecticut. That’s followed by a Q & A that regularly stretches for an hour or more. “I bet if you asked 10 different voters what his message is, you’d likely get 10 different answers,” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who clocked one Santorum town hall’s Q&A portion at 82 minutes. “He reminded me of the kid who transfer into your high school, gets placed in honors classes and wants to show he deserves to be there. He can’t resist the need to prove how smart he is.”

Santorum’s smarts and rhetorical polish shine through at times. On the stump he assails Romney for fashioning himself  “a CEO, a manager” rather than a change agent, decries the “elitist snobbery” of Barack Obama and paints a juxtaposition between Obama’s exercise of executive power – “he wants more of it, just like the kings of old” – and the “grassroots, liberty-driven” vision he claims to represent. But too often this vision is subsumed beneath 20-minute answers that leave voters with glazed eyes.

In interviews over the weekend, more than a dozen undecided New Hampshire voters said they were impressed by their first glimpse of the candidate. Many were longtime admirers, who had only begun to consider voting for Santorum after Iowa burnished the case for his viability.

But his windiness has frustrated even some who say they’re considering backing him on Tuesday. At his Amherst town hall, Santorum was asked what solution he would substitute for “ObamaCare,” and launched into a long disquisition on why Republicans shouldn’t nominate Mitt Romney, who implemented a health-care model similar to Obama’s when he was governor of Massachusetts. At that point, a Republican named Kelly Desmarais, a UPS worker from nearby Milford, cut in. “So what’s your system?” she demanded. “We’re not talking about Romney’s health-care system. We’re talking about yours.”

“I’ll get to that,” Santorum said, and plunged forward bashing Romney.

“That’s way too much information,” muttered Desmarais, who later said she was considering both candidates and wanted Santorum to explain why, as he claims on the stump, he is the one better positioned to beat Barack Obama. Desmarais sighed. “At this point, it’s about the better of all evils.”

The upside to Santorum’s testy exchanges, which have been dutifully captured by the swarms of press suddenly trailing him, is they have deflected attention from the inevitable wave of attacks that followed his triumph in Iowa. Arguing the case for traditional marriage, which Santorum calls a “unique privilege” and “not an inalienable right,” reaffirms the former Senator’s status as an unabashed culture warrior. That won’t help him curry favor in the Granite State. But it might give him a boost in the low country of South Carolina, where the consensus conservative alternative to Romney, if there is one, will be crowned.

There is a possibility that Santorum is inviting incendiary exchanges as a way to showcase his conservative bona fides. “That presupposes they have a strategy at all,” says Cullen. Though he’s visited New Hampshire more than 30 times, Santorum has just a shell of a campaign here. “He’s got nothing to show from his efforts” in terms of organization, says Cullen, who believes visiting college conventions, high schools and candidate forums is a way to conduct events on the cheap, freeing a skeletal staff from the burden of generating crowds, handling logistics and footing the bill. “Is it some brilliant, grandiose idea to show combativeness?” says Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s communications director. “I have no idea.”

There’s no question Santorum is adjusting on the fly to the sudden crush of attention that has accompanied his ascent in the polls. His campaign lacks a pollster. His debate prep, he said at one stop, consists of fielding tough questions at town halls. One of the familiar figures in his traveling entourage is Rod Olsen, a stay-at-home dad and self-described political junkie from California who had booked a trip to New Hampshire to take in the unique brand of retail politics the first-in-the-nation primary provides. “This is like fantasy baseball camp for me,” says Olsen, who had planned to volunteer for Mitt Romney until he heard Santorum’s stirring speech Tuesday night in Iowa. Deciding Santorum’s “values were more in line with my own,” Olsen called the local campaign office and offered to help out—which he did for several days this week, guarding the door during an interview in Dublin, standing in the spin room after Sunday morning’s debate, grinning as he took in the scene. Even there, the limits of Santorum’s organization were clear; his surrogates were among the few without signage to advertise their availability to reporters.

It’s not too late for the Santorum campaign to upgrade. And it helps that he’ll finally have more money in his war chest for what is sure to be a bloody battle in South Carolina. Santorum is poised to raise some $3 million in the week following Iowa, largely from small-dollar donors, Brabender says—more than his entire haul for 2011. Some of that will be funneled toward television ads in South Carolina, where he jetted Sunday after the weekend’s back-to-back debates.

But Santorum plans to continue running the kind of shoe-leather campaign that spurred his near-victory in Iowa. “This is really what democracy is about,” Brabender says. “This is how it should be done. It shouldn’t be done with attack ads and super PACs. For him this is about real retail politics.” Even if the politics of retail have stopped breaking his way.

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