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Santorum Tries To Connect With N.H. Voters

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Life certainly changed for Rick Santorum this week with his near win in the Iowa caucuses. But the former Pennsylvania senator is now campaigning in a different political climate, New Hampshire. Social conservatism doesn't always fly there, even among Republicans.

We hear more now from New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: When he took the stage at a packed high school auditorium last night in Windham, Rick Santorum didn't take long to face facts.

RICK SANTORUM: I love the Iowa town hall meetings and all those little, small farming towns. But here in New Hampshire, it's a very different atmosphere.

ROGERS: And it's not a religious one. Only about 20 percent of Republican primary voters here self-identify as evangelical Christians. In Iowa, that group made up more than 60 percent of caucusgoers. To do well here, Santorum will need to attract more than just people who like his reputation as a culture warrior.

Ken Dupont, a plumber, was in the crowd in Windham. If he's anything to go by, Santorum's hard-line stances on divisive social issues aren't necessarily a deal breaker.

KEN DUPONT: I am for abortion. I am for gay marriage. But I don't care if he's in favor of life, pro-life, that's OK. And if he's against gay marriage, that's his right too.

ROGERS: Dupont says fiscal and foreign policy will ultimately decide his vote. Both are themes Santorum has been stressing at length.

SANTORUM: Let's talk about Iran. Let's talk about Syria. Let's talk about Egypt. Let's even talk about Libya. Let's talk about Poland. Poland? Let's talk about Honduras. Honduras? Yeah. And there are many more, but I'm just talking about a few.

ROGERS: Santorum didn't discuss every country during this town hall meeting, but a large audience stayed quiet as he laid out his views on some fairly dry material - the mechanics of Social Security and the congressional budget process known as reconciliation.

Elsie Shude of Meredith says when she arrived she was leaning towards Mitt Romney, but now isn't so sure.

ELSIE SHUDE: I am very impressed with Rick. I really enjoyed listening to him. So, we'll go home and talk it over and see what happens.

ROGERS: Like many people at his recent events, Shude says Santorum's near win in Iowa prompted her to give him a closer look. With the fresh attention, though, New Hampshire voters will also get inevitable reminders of Santorum's arch-conservative social views. Same-sex marriage is legal in here. As a senator, Santorum once compared it to bestiality and pedophilia. Yesterday, Santorum argued with college students after he likened gay marriage to polygamy.

SANTORUM: Well, what about three men?

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

SANTORUM: Stop. OK, I'm going to give people one more chance and then we're going to move on. So...

ROGERS: The clash isn't the sort of thing that will likely endear Santorum to the independent voters who play a big role here, but it also doesn't hurt him with his core of support - social conservatives.

Jerry Thibodeau of Rumney, New Hampshire says Santorum's bluntness shows he can be trusted.

JERRY THIBODEAU: He doesn't leave you guessing where he stands on a topic. Obviously not everybody agrees with it. But you can't disagree with the way he's presenting himself. He's presenting himself honestly and truthfully, which is more than you can say some of these politicians.

ROGERS: Santorum's standing Tuesday may hinge on New Hampshire willingness to trust him. Recent polls show him just barely out of single digits. For that to change dramatically, voters here will have to take to heart Santorum's plea that they, quote, "Lead and be bold."

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.