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New Hampshire voters are no pushovers

In the Granite State, the electorate skips the niceties and gets right to the point, grilling Santorum on gay marriage and 'just wars,' and questioning Romney on his opposition to Obama's healthcare law.

January 07, 2012|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, right, speaks to hundreds of people during a campaign town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H., where he has been heatedly challenged by voters.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, right, speaks to hundreds… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — Consider the cranky New Hampshire voter.

"Maybe someone can ask you about being a warmonger and how that reconciles with your faith," Michele Seven demanded at a town hall meeting Rick Santorum held Friday in the auditorium of Dublin School. Her sweet tone belied the hostility behind her question. "Jesus said, 'Love your enemies,' and to feed them. Not blow them up."

"Right," replied the former Pennsylvania senator, whose bellicose language toward Iran is proving less popular here than in Iowa, where he ended in a near dead-heat with Mitt Romney in the first vote of the 2012 presidential campaign. "But as you know, my faith, my Catholic faith, as well as Christian faith, has a theory called 'just war' theory."

"No, it doesn't," Seven said.

"Yes, it does," Santorum said.

Another day, another confrontation on the campaign trail in the Granite State, where the concept of "Iowa nice" is as foreign here as a pork chop on a stick.

In Iowa, most voters take care not to offend. "I want to apologize in advance if this sounds a little harsh," said a man in Carroll, Iowa, before asking Newt Gingrich last week about the Greek cruise that led to his staff quitting last summer, his oversized bill at Tiffany and his failure to qualify for the Virginia ballot.

Here the obdurate electorate skips the niceties and gets right to the point.

At a town hall meeting Friday in Lebanon, N.H., 51-year-old Peter Merrill assailed Gingrich as the person "most responsible, or at least as responsible as any living person on the planet, for the current practice of conducting politics as if you were a suicide bomber engaged in hostage negotiations." (His question was about healthcare reform.)

At least one seasoned observer believes the tendency of New Hampshire voters to get right to the point is a function of a compressed time frame.

"A big factor is that Iowa takes place, in a sense, for a year, whereas in New Hampshire, it's intense for about a week," said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "So it stands to reason you'll get much more direct and perhaps confrontational questions from people."

Indeed. If former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, expected a favorite son's welcome at his first post-Iowa-victory town hall meeting here, he got something more like a brisk slap in the face.

The first three questions were edgy if not downright hostile. A man who identified himself with the Occupy movements challenged Romney to "refine" his oft-mocked statement that "corporations are people" to "corporations are abusive people." A woman asked Romney why he opposes President Obama's healthcare plan when he instituted a similar overhaul in Massachusetts. A Chinese American woman took Romney to task for his "degrading" language toward China. "It just doesn't make me feel good," she said.

"We kick the tires hard and repeatedly," said New Hampshire GOP committeeman Steve Duprey, who worked for John McCain in 2008 but has not endorsed anyone this time. "The attitude is, 'These people work for us, and we owe them our respect, not our deference.'"

Also, said Duprey, New Hampshirites expect a candidate to welcome confrontation, not avoid it.

"In 2008, one of the problems with Mitt Romney was he would look for people with Romney buttons on, and the questions would be 'Why are you so great?'" said Duprey, whose wife is a close advisor to Romney's wife, Ann. "McCain would call on the Code Pink ladies." (They are the pink-clad lefty activists who disrupt events by shouting antiwar slogans.)

Voters rewarded McCain with the win. Romney finished second.

And people here are acutely attuned to how candidates deal with unexpected "trouble." That can be a persistent heckler, someone who interrupts in frustration, or those who insist on asking a question the candidate has already answered. (Santorum was asked three times at the same event why he opposes gay marriage.)

In fact, perhaps more than the other candidates, it is Santorum — whose politics put him at the far right end of the spectrum on many issues — who has been heatedly challenged by New Hampshire voters. Understandably, because they tend to be more independent and libertarian-leaning than Republican voters in Iowa.

At Dublin School, as Santorum took issue with "judicial activists" on the Supreme Court who ruled there is a constitutional right to abortion and contraception, an organic farmer named Mark Dunau couldn't take it anymore.

"What about a conservative activist court?" Dunau yelled from the front row.

"Hold on," Santorum said.

"I'm sorry. I'm interrupting," Dunau said, in a tone that suggested he was too upset to hold back. "But a conservative activist court is also part of what you're saying, isn't it? Is the word 'corporation' in the Constitution?"

A few seats down, Brian Kelly, a Teamster who had driven from Boston to satisfy his curiosity about the Republican field, shook his head.

"This is amazing, because 90% of the questions are hostile," said Kelly, who had a small outburst of his own moments later, when Santorum was jousting with Michele Seven about Jesus and just wars.

"How'd you do with getting Bin Laden?" Kelly yelled from the front row. "How'd you do with that?"

"I was all for getting Bin Laden," Santorum replied.

"Nice work," said Kelly, his voice dripping sarcasm.

"We'll take one more question," Santorum said, "and we'll wrap it up."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta contributed to this report from New Hampshire.

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