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N.H. Crowd Shows Santorum It's More Interested in Fiscal Than Social Issues N.H. Crowd Shows Santorum It's More Interested in Fiscal Than Social I...

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CAMPAIGN 2012

N.H. Crowd Shows Santorum It's More Interested in Fiscal Than Social Issues

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Rick Santorum in Northfield, N.H., on Thursday.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

BRENTWOOD, N.H. –- Rick Santorum refused to wait for the inevitable question. The new top-tier GOP contender on Wednesday started his first stump speech since Iowa arguing that the primary’s next stop wouldn't end his campaign’s surge.

“People have asked me repeatedly, ‘Well, Rick, you’ve done well in Iowa, but New Hampshire is such a different place -- it's nothing like Iowa,’ ” Santorum said, speaking to a room too small to hold the overflow crowd of hundreds of voters and journalists.

 

The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania launched into a sermon about individual rights, the sanctity of life, and the right to provide for one's family –- values he says bind all Americans together.

“You believe in New Hampshire, exactly what they believe in Iowa, exactly what they believe in South Carolina,” he said, drawing applause.

Well, not exactly. Even as he argues otherwise, Santorum won’t avoid the stark demographic difference between the nation’s first two presidential primary stops –- one that puts Santorum on rocky terrain as he begins his final barnstorm of the state. Exceeding expectations, which is essential if he wants to solidify his place as the race’s conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, depends on him modulating his message.

 

Evangelical voters constitute a majority of the GOP voting bloc in Midwest Iowa -– 57 percent, according to entrance polls taken on Tuesday –- while New England’s secular slant leaves New Hampshire voters fixated on fiscal matters. Only 23 percent of them identified as born-again Christians in exit polls taken after the 2008 GOP primary.

Wednesday’s town hall illustrated the state’s personality. Santorum spent more than an hour answering questions, eventually joking he needed to end it because someone might need to use the bathroom. The questioners avoided cultural issues of any kind, instead testing Santorum –- often in great detail –- about problems with Social Security, entitlement spending, and congressional insider trading.

“I don’t think the social stuff, it might be important, but it’s not the No. 1 issue,” Audrey Dean, an Exeter resident who attended Wednesday’s town hall with her husband, said afterward. “It really is the ‘Live Free or Die’ state.”

The question took Santorum out of his comfort zone. Two decades in the public eye, first as a congressman then as a two-term senator, have cemented his reputation as a culture warrior whose appeal is aimed best at social and religious conservatives. With the possible exception of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he’s been the field’s most outspoken opponent of gay rights, and his fierce opposition to abortion ights has made him a hero in that community.

 

And social conservatives clearly responded to him in Iowa, where he won 32 percent of the evangelical vote. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was a distant second, receiving just 18 percent from the subgroup.

Santorum’s rise in Iowa and trials in New Hampshire call to mind the plight of a GOP presidential candidate from four years ago, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. It’s an example he won’t want to follow: Huckabee won Iowa with a commanding 34 percent of the vote, but finished a distant third a week later in New Hampshire with just 10 percent.

Santorum did show signs on Wednesday of successfully tailoring his message to a new audience. His opening speech, after emphasizing that he could appeal to voters of all stripes, delivered a blistering attack on President Obama –- popular with Republican audiences everywhere -– before making thinly veiled pot-shots at Romney’s policy flip-flops. He managed to turn one question about insider trading into a plea for the need for family values, but otherwise was able to offer often-wonky responses to questions about Social Security solvency and other policy-oriented queries.

His newfound pitch to blue-collar voters, which he courts by detailing a plan to revive the country’s manufacturing center and talking about his own hardscrabble background, also resonated with some Granite State voters.

“I think it would be good to have someone other than Romney or Gingrich speak for the party –- people who don’t represent the everyday Republicans as much as Rick,” said John Brindle, a 30-year-old teacher who attended Santorum’s event.

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