New Hampshire voters hammer Santorum over his views

— Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is trying to get New Hampshire conservatives to fall in love with him.

But in so doing, he’s reminding some independents, and certainly Democrats, exactly why they fell out of love with him in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he was ousted from office by more than 17 points in 2006.

At a campaign stop Thursday, he got into a verbal sparring match with a college student about same-sex marriage, after suggesting an equivalence between same-sex relationships and polygamy.

Ever since, Santorum has faced a series of confrontations — and some heckling — over his opposition to same-sex relationships and abortion.

And there are some signs this reception in a state where same-sex marriage is legal is taking some of the spring out of the momentum Santorum picked up by nearly winning the Iowa caucuses Tuesday.

A new Suffolk University/7News tracking poll of voters likely to take part in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary showed that following the widely televised exchange with the college student, Santorum’s support, which had been rising, had appeared to plateau.

The poll showed him losing support from independents and tied for fourth place with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. at 9 percent of the vote.

Santorum faced tough questions about abortion, the separation of church and state, and gay rights from a crowd packing a barn in Hollis on Saturday afternoon.

“Do you believe that a gay American’s soul needs saving the most?” asked one man.

“I’m not into the salvation business. I have somebody else I rely upon for that,” he responded, to loud cheers.

On Friday, he was aggressively heckled at a wild campaign stop at a restaurant. The event was forced into the parking lot after a fire marshal deemed the building too crowded. As Santorum spoke, he was interrupted periodically by shouts.

“What about equality for the gays?” one man shouted and, after Santorum opened with a request for respect, the man continued, “How much respect do you have for gay people, Rick?”

Santorum shrugged off the protests and spoke to the crowd for nearly 45 minutes, sometimes yelling over the taunts.

“I come from southwestern Pennsylvania,” he told the group. “I represented a district that had more steelworkers in it than any other district in America. This is nothing. This is cake. Steelworkers, those are serious folks. This is no problem.”

His campaign thinks the confrontations were inevitable and a sign he’s being taken seriously as a candidate.

They hope Santorum’s response will show conservatives — whom he’s trying to persuade to rally around him as an alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — that he’s got the deep-seated convictions and fighting spirit necessary to take on President Obama.

“It’ll show the contrast between him and the rest of the candidates,” said Claira Monier, the co-chairman of Santorum’s New Hampshire campaign. “There’s a certain percentage of voters who like that he stands up for what he believes in. And those are the voters we need to get out.”

But old Santorum foes believe the red-hot attention he’s received since his Iowa ascent will remind voters of some of his most controversial past statements — and turn off Republican voters who want to tackle Obama with an economic message and not get distracted by social issues.

A Washington Post-ABC poll in October found that 51 percent of adults thought the economy or jobs were the most important issues in their selection of a GOP nominee. An additional 13 percent said the deficit, debt or spending. Just 3 percent said morals or family values were most important.

Santorum’s record is rich with statements that could turn off independents.

In a 2005 interview, Santorum called birth control “harmful to women.”

“I think it’s harmful to our society to have a society that says that sex outside of marriage is something that should be encouraged or tolerated, particularly among the young,” he said.

(He said last week that while personally opposed to birth control, he would oppose any attempt to ban it. “The idea I’m coming after your birth control is absurd,” he said.)

In another interview in 2003, he compared gay sex to bestiality.

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality,” he said. “That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

“The more familiar people become with Rick Santorum, the more they look at him, the less they’re going to like him,” said Dan Savage, a columnist and gay rights activist who became Santorum’s chief antagonist after launching a 2003 contest among readers to protest Santorum’s stance on homosexuality by finding ways to mock the politician’s name.

The result cannot be printed in the newspaper, but a Web site devoted to its explanation is still usually the first item that appears in Google when Santorum’s last name is searched.

After remaining essentially dormant through much of the campaign season, the Web site has received more than 1.5 million page views in the days since the Iowa caucuses, Savage said.

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said Santorum’s 2006 loss came in part because Savage and others successfully used his comments to turn him into a ridiculed caricature.

But Rendell also said Santorum is a tenacious campaigner who lost in part because he was swept by that year’s anti-George W. Bush wave.

“Rick is a seasoned politician. He’s been through it all, and none of this is new to him,” said Rendell.

Still, Rendell said he would have believed it “absurdist thinking” in 2006 to think that Santorum could return six years later and be a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s as preposterous as thinking someone who was a one-term state senator and a half-a-term U.S. senator could run for the presidency,” he said, describing Obama’s background when he ran in 2008.

“Strange things happen.”

Staff writer Aaron Blake in Manchester and polling analyst Peyton Craighill in Washington contributed to this report.

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