NASHUA, N.H. — Rick Santorum was onstage at a Tea Party event Thursday night, talking about God.
“When we say ‘God bless America,’ do we mean it or do we just say it?” he asked the crowd in the auditorium at Windham High School. The former Pennsylvania senator then mimicked those Republicans who, he says, advise him, “Don’t talk about those things in New Hampshire.”
Santorum is unapologetically the same staunch conservative in the Granite State that he was in Iowa and — judging from the applause during the town hall forum sponsored by the Southern New Hampshire 9-12 Project — God is still more popular here than some Republicans may suspect.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the social conservative message that fueled Santorum’s surge in the Iowa caucuses, where evangelical Protestants are an influential constituency, will not go over well in New Hampshire. Yet Santorum appears determined to try to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.
During an afternoon appearance at a gathering of college students in Manchester, Santorum was challenged on his opposition to same-sex marriage, which the New Hampshire legislature approved in June 2009. Instead of brushing off the question, Santorum engaged in what the liberal blog Think Progress called a “Socratic dialogue” with his student questioner. “So, are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?” Santorum asked. “So, anyone can marry anybody else.… So, anybody can marry several people?”
His implicit comparison of homosexuality to polygamy was, of course, offensive to liberal sensibilities, and an annoyance to many Republicans who nowadays view social issues as a distraction or political hindrance that prevents their party from appealing to independent voters. However, Santorum seemed confident to the point of boldness Thursday, and there were good reasons for his confidence. Since his unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa, his campaign says, he’s been raising money at the blistering pace of $1 million a day. And Santorum’s refusal to trim his sails in regard to his conservative stances on social issues may be much wiser than the conventional wisdom.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had been Santorum’s strongest rival for evangelical votes in Iowa, quit the GOP presidential race Wednesday after her sixth-place finish in the Hawkeye State. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another evangelical favorite who finished a disappointing fifth in Iowa, will not make a major effort here, choosing instead to make his stand in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. That leaves Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the major conservative challenges to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. In this environment, Santorum’s doubling down on religious and cultural issues may actually be a quite shrewd strategy. Leaving Romney to contend for moderate votes with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — who has staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire — and leaving the libertarians to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Santorum seems prepared to maximize his appeal to social and religious conservatives. And if such conservatives are less numerous here than in Iowa, their percentage of the GOP primary electorate is probably greater than Santorum’s current poll standing in the Granite State.
Polls are lagging indicators for a suddenly surging campaign like Santorum’s, but the latest New Hampshire poll — commissioned by the Washington Times — showed him breaking into double digits for the first time. He is still a distant fifth in the Real Clear Politics average of New Hampshire polls, and it is too early to tell if Santorum can replicate his feat in Iowa, where his vote total on caucus night exceeded the final Des Moines Register poll by a full 10 percentage points. And his campaign is seeing signs of a similar surge here.
“We feel the excitement’s building out there,” Santorum’s campaign manager Mike Biundo said Thursday afternoon. “The crowds are getting bigger. More reporters are covering us. It feels pretty good.”
Biundo is a veteran New Hampshire operative and, while pundits have frequently asserted that Santorum had no organization outside Iowa, in fact he has made more campaign appearances here than any other candidate except Huntsman. While it’s nearly impossible to imagine that Santorum could fare as well here as he did in Iowa, he may once again exceed expectations, lending weight to the perception that he is the conservative with genuine momentum going into the South Carolina showdown.
Thoughts of political strategy, however, may have nothing to do with Santorum’s insistence on standing firmly on his social conservative stances. A devout Catholic father of seven, Santorum can’t be accused of “pandering,” when he is simply stating his own firm beliefs. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, his message appeared to win him admirers in the Tea Party crowd at Windham High. As they left the auditorium Thursday night, many of them were carrying home the candidate’s yard signs emblazoned with his campaign slogan, “Join the Fight.”