Santorum faces skeptical crowd in New Hampshire

DUBLIN, New Hampshire Sat Jan 7, 2012 3:28am IST

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to voters at a campaign stop in Dublin, New Hampshire, January 6, 2012. The New Hampshire Republican presidential primary election is on January 10. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to voters at a campaign stop in Dublin, New Hampshire, January 6, 2012. The New Hampshire Republican presidential primary election is on January 10.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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DUBLIN, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum faced a barrage of questions from a skeptical crowd on Friday in a sign that New Hampshire is a tougher sell for his conservative views than Iowa.

Santorum, gunning for at least second place behind front-runner Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, was forced for the second day in a row to defend his opposition to gay rights and government spending at a town hall meeting whose audience challenged him repeatedly.

The former Pennsylvania senator, seeking his party's nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, came into New Hampshire with a head of steam after narrowly losing the Iowa caucuses to Romney last Tuesday.

But if Friday was any indication, Santorum's best bet may be to do as well as possible in New Hampshire and then move on to South Carolina where his social conservative views might gain a better footing.

Taking questions from a mostly youthful audience at a school in Dublin, Santorum was quickly on the defensive. The first questioner wanted to know why he opposed gays being able to serve openly in the U.S. military and being able to adopt children.

There are certain qualifications for being allowed to serve in the military, he said.

"I believe that does not include people who are openly gay in the military. That's my belief. I believe the military will be much better served by having a 'don't ask, don't tell policy," Santorum said.

On gay marriage and adoption, he added: "Marriage is not a right. Not everybody can marry everybody else."

EARMARKS AGAIN

Another questioner asked him about reducing the U.S. deficit. Santorum used the opportunity to fire back at Republican Senator John McCain, a Romney supporter who attacked Santorum on Thursday for backing costly government spending projects called earmarks.

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, cited specific spending items that Santorum backed that included $500,000 for a polar bear exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo.

Santorum said he backed such items because he wanted to bring home taxpayer dollars paid to the federal government by Pennsylvania citizens. To call him a big spender because he backs earmark spending items is "absurd," he said.

Santorum's New Hampshire campaign events are drawing big crowds curious about him. Some of the participants at the event were openly skeptical.

"He left me with a lot of questions," said a woman in the audience, Lisa Foote of Dublin, who said she would vote for Romney on Tuesday.

She agreed him with on government spending earmarks, but "I disagree with him about gay marriage. I think gay couples should be allowed to marry."

The latest Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire voters showed Romney, who was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, still solidly in the lead, a day before a final weekend of campaigning that includes back-to-back debates of the candidates on Saturday and Sunday.

Santorum's goal is to try to bring down Romney's numbers and vault into a high finish to give himself credibility over other conservative alternatives to Romney like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who are also looking to South Carolina to revive their 2012 campaigns.

Trying to raise doubts about Romney, Santorum cited Obama's U.S. healthcare overhaul as an example of government over-reaching and linked it indirectly to the healthcare plan Romney developed for Massachusetts.

"We need a clear contrast, someone who paints a very different vision, someone who has a record of painting a very different vision, particularly on healthcare," Santorum said.

Michele Seven of Dublin shouted at Santorum that he was a "warmonger," whose views did not fit with his religious faith.

"Jesus said to love your enemies and to feed them, not blow them up," said Seven, who plans to vote for libertarian Ron Paul on Tuesday.

Santorum, who supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he was in the Senate, said he believed countries had a right to defend themselves.

"Countries should not turn the other cheek,", he told her. "They have a responsibility to defend themselves."

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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