AMHERST, N.H. — The candidate stood on a picnic table next to a country store where a sign advertised “Steak & Ale Soup” and “Homemade Baked Beans” and “Meet Rick Santorum Sat Jan 7th 12:30 p.m.” The former senator from Pennsylvania took questions, and when someone asked about health insurance he provided an answer that threatened to last as long as the Vietnam War.
Then a woman’s voice split the air.
“Listen, that’s way too much information!”
It was Kelly Desmarais, a blonde, middle-aged woman from nearby Milford. She wanted a simpler pitch from Santorum. “What makes him more electable than Mitt Romney?” she said to a reporter as Santorum kept rambling.
The direct encounter, unmediated and unscripted, between ordinary voters and the people who want to be president of the United States is a New Hampshire Primary tradition. This year, however, the tone has been rougher than usual. This has been the year of the shouter, the provocateur, the agitator.
The physics of this campaign favors the party-crashers. With the outcome of Tuesday’s vote seemingly not in doubt — Romney is the overwhelming favorite to win here — the crowds have been smaller than in past primaries, but with a higher percentage of protesters.
Some of the protesters are part of the Occupy movement, and some are anti-establishment supporters of Ron Paul who show up at all the candidate events. Some are simply liberals who want to have their voices heard. It’s easy to get into a venue, and to get close enough to a candidate to ask — or shout — a question.
The result is that every Republican has been exposed to alternative political voices, including ones belonging to people who have been sleeping in public parks.
Santorum in particular has been heckler bait. His appearance at a college convention Thursday, when he tried at great length to persuade liberal college students that two men marrying was akin to three men or five men marrying, was a classic New Hampshire Primary moment — a situation that no strategist could have hoped for and most candidates would have avoided.
On Friday, a fire marshal forced him to move a stump speech in a Manchester restaurant to the parking lot, which opened him up for easy heckling. Santorum may have been relieved when he flew away Sunday for the decorous and gentle political environment known as South Carolina.
Mitt Romney has faced hostile questions. Many of his events feature no Q&A, just the canned speech followed by taped music and picture-taking, but he still has to get to his car. As Romney left the opera house in Rochester on Sunday, Occupy protester Ben Chichester, waving a flag in which the stars had been replaced by corporate logos, came within five feet and shouted, “Mr. Romney! Are you hearing us? Are you the next handmaiden for the nuclear-military-industrial complex?”
There have been clashes between protesting groups. Before Saturday night’s debate, Occupy protesters and a makeshift marching band made their way onto the St. Anselm College campus. They were herded into a holding pen with supporters of the Republican candidates and various special-interest activists, including a group of ultra-orthodox Jews who are opposed to the state of Israel. Verbal scuffling ensued, amplified by bullhorns.
Paul Getsos, 49, a veteran activist from New York, said outside the Concord debate that he’d been training Occupy protesters. He offered guidance to a young man who planned to go to Santorum’s visit to the country store in Amherst.
“I told him, ‘Grab his hand, don’t let go of his hand until you ask your question,’ ” Getsos said.
The Occupiers did manage to get in Santorum’s face in Amherst as he was heading back to the black pickup that served as his limo. But along the way, the senator picked up one vote: that of Kelly Desmarais, who had shouted at him for being long-winded.
Desmarais, after her outburst, had managed to ask Santorum why her 19-year-old son should vote for him. She liked his answer, and when the event was over she walked up to the candidate and said, “You got my vote.” He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.
Then someone handed her two “Santorum” yard signs.