MERRIMACK, N.H. — He surged out of nowhere in Iowa. Now, can Rick Santorum do the same in New Hampshire?
The 53-year-old former senator from Pennsylvania, with his tale of the coal miner grandfather whose hard work set the family on the path to the American dream, could connect with working-class voters here in the Granite State.
And he'll seek a bond with his fellow Roman Catholics, who outnumber any other denomination in the state.
But he also faces a reserved New England population, where voters traditionally shun the blend of religion and politics that helped Santorum in Iowa, where he finished only 8 votes behind winner Mitt Romney. And his stories of fighting on social issues such as abortion will face a more-libertarian audience than in Iowa.
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How he navigates here will determine whether he's another Pat Buchanan, who scored an impressive populist protest vote against an establishment choice here in both the 1992 and 1996 GOP primaries, or another Mike Huckabee, who in 2008 watched his Iowa success stopped cold here.
No doubt Santorum faces a mountainous climb in the state where former Massachusetts Gov. Romney lives part-time, next door to the state where he governed.
Romney still holds a commanding lead in New Hampshire with 41 percent according to a new Suffolk University/7 News poll, but his total eroded slightly here since his Iowa win. Meanwhile, his top challengers, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Santorum, gained a little, with Paul now at 18 percent and Santorum at 8 percent.
"I'm for Mitt Romney, but my vote isn't carved in stone. I can be swayed," said Don LaCroix, 65, a retired telephone engineer from Northfield.
"I think he's not for the working man, the lower man, the guy out of work," LaCroix said of Romney, adding that he thought Santorum might have a more common touch. "I like what I heard from Santorum."
Paul Pearl, a 27-year-old nurse from Franklin, said he's still undecided, but left a Santorum event with grudging respect.
"I came in very negative towards him," Pearl said. "But he came in and explained well his views on the economy. I liked that he delved in and talked about the real problems with entitlements programs. He didn't just talk about what's politically easy."
Santorum's pitch is as much personal as political, seeking different connections to voters than rivals such as Romney do.
He chokes up when he talks about his family, as he did on the night of the Iowa caucuses when many Americans got their first extended look at him on television. A father of seven, he told how he and his wife took their stillborn son home so the rest of the family could see him, and how his 3-year-old daughter cannot join the family on the campaign trail.
Wearing jeans and sweater vests on the road, Santorum brags that he attended blue-collar Penn State University, not an elite school — (Romney holds advanced degrees from Harvard's law and business schools) — and that he's at home with steel mill workers and miners.
"My grandfather was a coal miner from southwestern Pennsylvania and I grew up in a blue-collar town," he said at a town hall meeting this week in Brentwood, N.H. "I understand the importance in this county of manufacturing. The importance of making sure we're not just the knowledge-based economy."
With no money until a post-Iowa flood of more than $1 million in donations, Santorum has been closer to voters than most rivals. He had no campaign bus in Iowa, riding instead in a supporter's pickup truck. He also lingers to talk to people after events.
For months in Iowa that was easy, with just 10 or 12 people sometimes showing up.
"He doesn't have the disconnect that Romney and (former Utah Gov. Jon) Huntsman have in talking to regular people," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Barnstorming the state Thursday, Santorum renewed his pitch of economic and social conservatism coupled with tough talk on foreign threats, which sets him apart from isolationist Paul.
"I think most people are conservative," said Robert Iliff, 71, a retiree from Franklin, N.H. "They want their gun rights, if they like to hunt, and most people are self-employed."
"Santorum's strategy looks to be channeling the economic populism and cultural conservative campaign that helped Buchanan emerge from Iowa to defeat Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1996," said Greg Mueller, a veteran of the Buchanan campaign.
Ultimately, Santorum may not be as strong in New Hampshire as Buchanan was, in part because the state has grown more liberal. Also, Buchanan had the anti-establishment vote largely to himself. Santorum will lose a lot of that to Paul, particularly anti-war isolationists.
A devout Catholic, Santorum might find an audience in the state where Catholics outnumber evangelical Christians 3-1. In Iowa, Catholics and evangelicals are about even.
With his strong opposition to abortion and gay rights, Santorum scores well with evangelical Christians. He took a plurality of their votes in Iowa, where they made up close to 60 percent of the caucus vote. Now he'll have to do as well with New Hampshire Catholics.
Indeed, he'll have to avoid the New Hampshire fate of Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won Iowa four years ago, only to finish a distant, disappointing second in New Hampshire to eventual nominee John McCain.
Some of Santorum's stands and statements that weren't controversial for Iowa voters — such as once likening homosexuality to bigamy and incest — will stand out more in a state where the legislature legalized gay marriage as of Jan. 1, 2010. He was booed by college students Thursday after he debated gay marriage with one of them, likening it to polygamy. If two men can marry, he said,ï¿½"What about three men?"
And his public talk of faith in public life might alienate some New Hampshire voters.
"That doesn't fly here," said Dartmouth's Fowler. "This is Yankee land. People are much more reserved talking about things like their relationship with God."
If Santorum cannot catch or even dent Romney in New Hampshire, he still hopes to gain enough support to emerge as a strong conservative alternative as the race turns south to more friendly, conservative territory. South Carolina votes on Jan. 21, and Florida 10 days later.
"The chances in five days to make up a 35- or 40-point lead are going to be pretty limited," Santorum acknowledged Thursday. "But we expect to make a run and to move up in those polls and to show that we're the candidate with the momentum, and we'll carry that into South Carolina."
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