Santorum Faces Skeptics As He Seeks Votes in NH
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum faced skepticism about his support for gun rights and engaged in a hostile exchange over gay marriage Thursday, all the while emphasizing a conservative record that he acknowledges is imperfect.
Santorum, who came within eight votes of winning Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, is working to build a campaign machine, raise money and introduce himself to voters who had treated him as a footnote to this point. But as he has emerged as Mitt Romney’s chief rival, he is drawing the scrutiny that comes with being at the front of the pack.
"What assurances can you give New Hampshire voters that you’re not going to strip us of our Second Amendment rights?" one voter pointedly asked him in Tilton.
The voter cited Santorum’s past endorsement of Arlen Specter, a former Pennsylvania senator who left the GOP and had supported restrictions.
Santorum said he was a supporter of gun owners’ rights and took his son hunting during a recent trip to Iowa. He noted that he shot four birds on that outing near Des Moines, where he wore a high bright orange National Rifle Association hat. But he also acknowledged there were problems with his conservative bona fides, including his support of Specter, with whom he served in the Senate.
"Am I perfect? No. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve been upfront about that," he said, standing in a former train depot and addressing a standing-room-only crowd. That’s become the new normal for a candidate who just weeks ago struggled to fill seats even in small venues.
His stark opposition to abortion and gay rights and his personal testimony of faith are central to his campaign. While that endears him to social conservatives, it won him a caustic reception at a conference in Concord for college students from across the country.
One man asked Santorum about his opposition to same-sex marriage, which is legal in New Hampshire. The candidate quickly picked a fight with the crowd, which seemed to support same-sex unions.
"So anyone can marry anyone else?" Santorum asked, swiftly turning the conversation to polygamy. "So anyone can marry several people?"
The crowd objected and tried to talk over him.