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Rick Santorum Arrives in New Hampshire

12:00 AM, Jan 5, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Rockingham, N.H.
You could see the growing pains right off the bat Wednesday night: Rick Santorum’s first post-Iowa event was booked at a conference room in a nursing home. The space had seats for 120 people or so, with standing room for perhaps another 40, at most. The room was full an hour before Santorum was scheduled to appear. A half-hour later, it was overstuffed with people sitting and kneeling on the cold linoleum floor, interspersed with cameras and reporters in the media pen toward the back. There were old people with canes (none of them looking infirm enough to be residents of the home), a smattering of young kids, and everything in between. The campaign winkingly assured the crowd that there were only 160 people in the room, but that was a fib for the benefit of the fire marshal.

Rick Santorum

Before Santorum arrived, the organizers led the audience in the pledge of allegiance. And once Santorum appeared, wearing blue jeans, a red button-down shirt, and a navy sweater vest (if he’s elected, the Jim Tressel look will sweep the nation), it took him a couple minutes to wade through the bodies and get to the small podium at the front of the room.

It was a well-received performance—he was interrupted by applause five times in the first five minutes, and he spoke for just ten minutes total before opening the floor to questions. But from the makeshift appearance, it was clear that Santorum had already made a tactical shift for New Hampshire. And it appears quite shrewd.

In Iowa, Santorum led with social conservatism. Here he opened with the broad theme of freedom. He criticized President Obama’s governing philosophy by saying, “He believes you are incapable of freedom.” And he added: “The president believes that you need him.” Referencing Obama’s messianic 2008 campaign, Santorum quipped, “He convinced the American public that you needed a president that you could believe in. I’m here to tell you, that what I hear from the American people today, is that you want a president who believes in you.

His prepared remarks went from the broad principles of freedom to a couple not-so-oblique swipes at Mitt Romney. “We’re going to go into every setting, stand up, and tell the truth,” he said. And then, just so people didn’t misunderstand him: “You may not agree with me on every issue, but you can trust that I agree with me on every issue.” He urged voters not to settle and then took questions.

Like all senators, Santorum likes to talk; as a consequence, his Q&A sessions tend toward the marathon. He spent nearly 15 minutes, for instance, answering a single query on Social Security, during which time he strayed into think tank territory with a disquisition on actuarial formulas and bend points. (He also explicitly advocated means testing, raising Social Security tax rates, and raising the retirement age.) It was impressive, in its way, but not thrilling political theater.

Santorum engaged questioners for nearly 80 minutes, and he kept his focus relentlessly on the ideas of freedom and sound economic policy. But tucked away in this more New Hampshire friendly message was the killer app he used in Iowa: the bridge between values and economics.

Asked a question about how he would stop members of Congress from insider trading, Santorum began by saying that we shouldn’t need a law to prevent legislators from profiting off of non-public information, because such actions are unethical. But because our representatives don’t act ethically and morally, he said, we’ll have to pass a law to force them to do so. And then we’ll have to hire people to enforce the law. And congressional offices will swell with these new hall monitors. And the entire system of enforcement will cost Americans money.

You see, Santorum said, earnestly, “People say, ‘All we need to care about is cutting taxes and cutting government and everything will be fine.’ But if people don’t live good, decent, moral lives, government is going to get bigger. And that’s why I say families and faith is an important part of the foundation of economic limited government.”

It’s an elegant formulation—marrying values and morality to smaller government—and, superficially at least, it’s quite compelling. Santorum is the only man in the race selling this idea. The audience in Rockingham loved it.

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