Rick Santorum talks to voters in N.H. — and talks and talks and talks

For months, Rick Santorum went from diner to pizza parlor to the living rooms of supporters trying to get someone, anyone, to pay attention to him.

Now that they’re finally listening to the former senator from Pennsylvania, he can’t seem to stop talking.

In an era of carefully scripted and scheduled campaign stops, Santorum’s town halls are marathons — 90 minutes or more of long, discursive history lessons. Interested in Ronald Reagan’s reform of Social Security in 1983? Santorum will tell you about it. He has plenty of thoughts about the significance to Islam of the town where Iran is thought to be building a nuclear facility, too. And, of course, he talks about presidential term limits in Honduras.

Even as his crowds have grown since his near-win against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucuses, he tries to call on every raised hand in a packed room.

“Hopefully, I’ll wear you down,” Santorum joked to a crowd of about 300 an hour into an event late Wednesday evening. He spotted a dozen more questions as increasingly desperate aides attempted to get him to stop — so he could go on a national radio show and talk some more.

So far, New Hampshirites don’t appear to be worn down.

Instead, in a state that treasures the chance to personally test-drive presidential candidates, Santorum has been greeted by curious and attentive crowds that happily take part in a kind of Socratic routine he weaves into his answers.

“Anyone know what life expectancy was when Social Security was started?” he often asks. “Anyone?” as audience members call out guesses.

“Sixty-one!” he replies, then explains why he believes the retirement age should be raised from 66 now that people are living to 80.

Few make for the doors before he finishes.

“I think he’s got the kind of grasp of issues that Newt Gingrich has,” said undecided New Hampshire voter Lou Murray, 45, “with maybe a bit more charm.”

Santorum’s events go on about twice as long as his rivals’. Romney’s town halls last about 45 minutes, an hour at most. Ron Paul talks for about 20 minutes and then takes 25 minutes of questions. Even the loquacious Gingrich usually cuts off after about 45 minutes.

Part of Santorum’s approach is based in strategy, a way to reassure voters who don’t know him well that 16 years in Congress have left him with a strong enough command of the issues that he could debate President Obama.

He also seems to enjoy taking tough questions and mixing it up with those who disagree with him. On Thursday, he appeared for nearly an hour and a half in front of an at-times hostile college-age crowd in Concord, engaging in a lengthy verbal sparring match with students who questioned his strong opposition to same-sex marriage.

“If it makes three people happy to get married, based on what you just said, what makes that wrong?” he asked one of the questioners.

He was loudly booed at the end of the event, though he appeared unperturbed.

“He’s got command of the classroom,” Alex Caldwell, 35, said with admiration. The former teacher attended an earlier event Thursday at a picturesque railroad museum in Northfield.

A Democrat who said he’ll likely vote for President Obama in November, Caldwell said he shows up to hear all the candidates and suss out whether they “have a working brain up there.”

“I want to hear long answers,” Caldwell said.

But there is some danger for Santorum, who had a reputation for brash self-importance among colleagues in Congress. As he breaks onto the national scene, he can’t afford for voters to conclude that he just likes to hear himself speak. Or, worse, that’s he’s long-winded and boring. Santorum events go on for a long time not because he takes so many questions but because his answers are so long.

In a seven-minute response to a question Thursday morning from a man who asked how Santorum would get his agenda through a divided Congress, the former senator referenced the Declaration of Independence, President Reagan’s farewell address, the practice of rewriting textbooks in the Soviet Union after a change in leadership, the quantity of time devoted to George Washington versus Cesar Chavez in American schools, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and what he said has been President Obama’s lack of vision and attempts to divide Americans based on class.

That’s why we have such a partisan divide,” he concluded.

He answered a question at a Windham high school Thursday night about base-line budgeting with an eight-minute tutorial on how federal spending is devised.

His supporters have tried to nudge him to be a bit more succinct.

“I keep telling him, shorten his answers. Be more concise,” said Claira Pirozzi Monier, Santorum’s New Hampshire co-chairman, a longtime Republican activist who supported Mitt Romney in 2008 but came aboard for Santorum because she says Romney’s effort is controlled by the “blue suits.” By contrast, she said Santorum’s is the kind of grass-roots candidacy that has always thrived in New Hampshire.

“He says, ‘Okay, okay, okay. I hear you,’ ” Monier said. “And then he keeps on talking.”

Told by the moderator at the 68-minute mark of the high school forum that he was out of time, Santorum responded with disbelief, “Oh, no. Really?

“I’ll do five more minutes.”

And then continued for nearly another 20.

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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