WINDHAM, N.H. -- Judging from the presidential forums being held all over New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday's Republican primary, the biggest threats to America appear to be online piracy, an insidious United Nations and "crony capitalism."
Rick Santorum, for instance, fielded questions for 48 minutes from a crowd of 600 in Windham on Thursday before anyone mentioned jobs, the issue that's supposed to dominate the 2012 elections. He got a dozen questions before that, including two about alleged U.N. subversion of U.S. sovereignty, one each about states' rights and Judeo-Christian values, and two about a treaty to "stop online piracy."
Iowa and New Hampshire – small, largely rural and overwhelmingly white – both have unemployment rates far below the national average of 8.5 percent. It may help explain their voters' interest in non-economic issues. And it may leave the states a bit out of touch with the anxieties afflicting so much of the country.
Many Iowa and New Hampshire residents care deeply about jobs, of course. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tends to get economic-related questions more often than do the socially conservative Santorum and the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas.
But particularly in New Hampshire – the "Live Free or Die" state, which has no income tax or sales tax – the Republican presidential debate is deeply colored by issues that would leave many financially strapped Americans scratching their heads. It might not matter much in the long run. But it conceivably could give President Barack Obama's allies a chance to paint the GOP as out of touch with average Americans.
Some New Hampshire residents, hinting at conspiracies by the federal government or international powers, have urged the presidential candidates to embrace positions on the fringes of U.S. political debate. A man in Windham invoked Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in arguing that states should be able to ignore federal laws they consider unconstitutional.
"We had a war about nullification," Santorum reminded him, noting that the Civil War closed the lid on southern assertions of states' rights.
Another man, saying, "I fear my government," asked Santorum to condemn a new defense authorization bill that allows indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, even if they are U.S. citizens. The issue was raised at several New Hampshire events last week. Santorum said terrorism is a serious threat, but incarcerated U.S. citizens must have access to federal courts.
A teenage boy implored Santorum to look into the Stop Online Piracy Act, saying a friend of his might go to prison for five years for posting a cover version of a song on the Internet.
Such questions might raise few eyebrows at small forums sponsored by libertarians or tea party groups. But the Thursday event drew a large cross-section of people who packed Windham High School's sparkling and spacious auditorium.
Santorum isn't the only candidate fielding questions that rarely focus on jobs. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, at a military museum in Wolfeboro Saturday, was asked about numerous other topics, including whether he would padlock the Environmental Protection Agency and Education Department.
Gingrich said he probably would "order them to re-review every proposed regulation and keep them rope-a-doping for a while."
A Harvard student asked Gingrich how he could govern while refusing to raise taxes to help close budget deficits. Gingrich drew nods of approval when he replied: "I'm happy to cooperate. I'm not willing to compromise. Compromise in Washington means sell-out."
Romney, the favorite to win in New Hampshire, tends to draw more mainstream Republican audiences. Even he, however, has to field unexpected zingers.
At a spaghetti dinner in Tilton, a woman said she was struggling financially. "I know you're a multimillionaire," she said. "I read this morning you have four houses. Would you be willing to give up some of that so that the people in America could get some tax cuts?"
"That's a good idea," Romney said with a nervous laugh. "The best way I can help middle-income Americans is to become president of the United States, to cut taxes for middle-income Americans, which is what my proposal does, and to get jobs for middle-income Americans."
For the record, Romney said he owns only three houses.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Phil Elliott, Holly Ramer, Beth Fouhy and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.