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New Hampshire Primary: GOP Candidates Enter Political Disneyland

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Rick Santorum campaigns at College Convention in New Hampshire.
Rick Santorum campaigns at College Convention in New Hampshire.

CONCORD, N.H. -- The cozy conservative confines of the Iowa caucuses have given way to an unpredictable and often unruly New Hampshire primary, where the questioners are a bit more salty and the political terrain a lot more difficult to traverse. On Thursday afternoon, Rick Santorum became the latest in the GOP field to encounter the type of hostile crowd that never really presented itself as he became the latest candidate-du-jour in Iowa.

Appearing at the College Convention in Concord, N.H., the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania faced boos and hisses as he launched familiar defenses of his positions on same-sex marriage, federal drug laws and Judeo-Christian values. When his answers failed to persuade the crowd, he was forced to resort to Socratic method -- a tactic that frustrated some in the audience and led to shouts that he was avoiding the questions.

"If it makes three people happy to get married, based on what you just said, what makes that wrong and what you said right?" Santorum asked a young woman grilling him on marriage equality, comparing same-sex marriage to polygamy.

When she responded that his question was "irrelevant," Santorum replied, "You know, it's important, if we're going to have a discussion based on rational, reasoned thought, that we employ reason." There were audible groans from the audience.

"I always try to give kids the opportunity," Santorum explained to several reporters as he walked away from the event. "I'm trying to. I sort of always look, when you're with kids, to try to engage them and try to get them thinking about why they're thinking the way they're thinking."

Santorum tried his best to control his environment, asking at his town hall meetings that state residents get priority in asking questions.

But in New Hampshire, where countless out-of-staters, libertarian-minded voters and one-issue advocates descend for a week of campaign theater, the environment is proving utterly difficult to control. On Wednesday, Mitt Romney learned that the hard way when the first questioner at a town hall event meant to showcase his endorsement by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was an Occupy Manchester protester demanding that he revamp his proclamation that "corporations are people." Newt Gingrich, likewise, found himself in the middle of the circus when, at his first stop in New Hampshire, he was pressed on three separate occasions to acknowledge that the country's drug laws were draconian. He didn't and ended up insisting that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have been "rather more violent" than today's feds.

Santorum, however, has seemed to bring out the best of the rabble-rousers. A well-known Christian conservative, his politics have proved an odd fit for the Granite State. Earlier in the day, his lunch at a diner in Tilton was interrupted by Occupy protesters. At the College Convention, his answers repeatedly produced hisses and hollers. Once finished, the attendees could hardly wait to unload, homing in on a statement he had made in Sioux City, Iowa, in which he said he doesn't want to "make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money."

"You can say that stuff in Iowa where it's 84 percent Caucasian," said LaCarte Lewis, a student at Northshore Technical Community College in Greensburg, La., who had trouble staying in her seat during the event because she so badly wanted to press Santorum on the issue. "How can you say that? Why would you say that? And you want our votes? He sucks. He really sucks."

Fannie Buckley, 39, was equally enraged, not just with the Santorum's Sioux City remarks, but his avoidance of the question entirely.

"I work 18 hours a week, I go to college, and I don't get food stamps or government aid," Buckley said. "We all were in a group together, a majority of black people were bunched together on the side. And he avoided us."

Some questions, however, are simply unavoidable. The group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, for instance, has been sending hordes of individuals to most campaign stops (including the one where Gingrich was pressed on the founding fathers' weed habits). And if they don’t get their question asked, they are perfectly comfortable resorting to mischief. As Santorum left Thursday afternoon's event, for example, he was asked by one attendee to sign a yard sign for his ailing father. A seemingly sentimental request turned into a confrontational moment, when the attendee demanded that, as president, Santorum end federal drug policies that were "ruining families." The candidate stepped quickly into his car.

"No candidate except Ron Paul will talk about this on his own," explained Andrew Livingston, 21, a member of the organization, not the culprit behind the question. "So you need to force the issue."

And therein lies the essence of the New Hampshire primary. Livingston can't vote. He's from New Jersey. Nor could Buckley or Lewis, who were two of 73 students attending from Louisiana. The event featured at least nine kids from the Waterbury, Conn., area as well, with one, Isabella, unable to ask Santorum, "Why should we vote for you?" Twelve years of age, Isabella can't vote for him. It is, every four years, Disneyland for political junkies from across the country.

At one point Santorum was asked about a molten salt reactor in China by a Democratic presidential candidate named Bob Greene. Before he even took to the dais, another presidential candidate, Robert David Steele of the Reform Party, was telling attendees that if they just fact-checked everyone else, he would be a top-three candidate (the other two being Buddy Roemer and Ron Paul). After the event, a man named Michael J. Meehan was handing out business cards that read: "I Just Met The Next President Of The United States. ... Goliath Never Saw Us Coming."

Other, more mainstream candidates, are slated to attend the College Convention. But, perhaps sensing the inherent chaos in the event, organizers are expecting dropouts.

"All have from time to time confirmed," said Dr. Jim Walsh, co-director of College Convention. "Paul is not likely to make his appearance tomorrow ... Mr. Romney? Mr. Romney hasn't answered our calls."

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