After the unimpressive Mitt Romney event I described in Part 1 of this saga, I hightailed it north to Laconia, where Newt Gingrich had his first post-Iowa Town Hall. Gingrich, if you aren't aware, has refashioned his campaign into a cannonball aimed at Romney and Ron Paul, who he blames for attack ads that have sunk his candidacy -- and, worse, seriously damaged his brand value in the conservative marketplace.
Like Kahn chasing Kirk in Star Trek II, Newt is out for vengeance. ("...and I wish to go on hurting you...") As best I can tell, there are now only two topics in Gingrich's campaign repertoire: domestic policy, on which Romney is an oily, lying "moderate from Massachusetts"; and foreign policy, on which Ron Paul is a dangerous isolationist who would let Iran nuke Israel out of existence.
There is no crossing of those streams; I asked Gingrich's press secretary R.C. Hammond whether there are any differences between Gingrich and Romney on foreign policy, and he said he'd have to look into it and get back to me. Hammond also gave me the best quote of the day, when I asked him whether Gingrich's now-constant refrain, "moderate from Massachusetts," was meant in any way to disparage the great and historic Commonwealth from which my newspaper hails. "The last bastion of the Soviet Union exists just south of Salem [NH]," he replied.
I learned from Hammond that the campaign was busy producing a series of new TV ads that would "contrast" with Romney on various issues, including abortion and gun rights. He and Gingrich both insist that these will not count as "negative ads" because they are simply the truth; I get the strong impression that the truth will be delivered in a rather forceful manner that some may consider negative. ("...I shall leave you as you left me, marooned for all eternity...")
The Gingrich Town Hall was well-attended, mostly by older, cantankerous conservatives; there was far less media presence, however, than at Romney and Santorum events that day. Fortunately, he knows how to drive a news cycle, and he gave reporters the bites they needed.
After that I hustled southwesterly to Peterborough, for the Romney campaign's second try at a joint Romney-McCain Town Hall. This one was much better -- I highly recommend they stick with these after-work, suburban events, which are more accessible to Romney's supporters and less accessible to young punks and lefties. Peterborough also happens to love themselves some John McCain, and that showed. All the campaign rhetoric and the cheesy jokes that fell flat in Manchester produced roars in Peterborough.
Unfortunately for the campaign, Peterborough at 5:45pm is also less accessible for journalists, who have deadlines and TV stand-ups and dinner plans before the 7:30 Santorum Town Hall in Brentwood. The big, bubble-wrapped Romney bus brought in the embeds, but I saw very few of the boldface media stars who had attended, and reported on, the lackluster earlier event. Oh well; I assume the campaign got some great footage for an ad making its way to WMUR-TV.
I had to leave as audience questions were starting, to get to Brentwood on time for Santorum. The event was in a nursing home, which was telling. Nursing homes are great venues for candidate appearances, because they're among the few places where you have a good chance of gathering together a decent number of actual likely voters open to persuasion. In other words, if your target is the people in the room, at the event.
But Santorum needs to be targeting people outside the room, who might get a glimpse of it on TV news, or YouTube, or a campaign ad making its way to WMUR-TV. There's no time to win over New Hampshirites 150 at a time; the campaign needs to be providing people out in their homes with some indication of why their guy is "surging."
It was, as I suspected, a terrible venue for that. To be fair, I'm sure the campaign had reserved the space before the Iowa results, and the $1 million that they claim immediately poured in over the Internet. They have already moved one of today's events to a better venue.
Regardless, Santorum is an interesting candidate. He has done dozens and dozens of town halls in the past year, and he doesn't seem to have developed, in the slightest, a knack for punchy answers, applause lines, sharp interaction, or any of the things that professional pols do. What he does is talk at length about policy, on and on, and on and on. He takes question after question after question. He says things that are clearly taken badly by his audience, and keeps on without trying to assuage them.
He held the stage for over an hour and a half -- an eternity for one of these, especially in the final week crunch time. And over that time the audience, which to my mind was very cool to him, seemed to warm up. You figure over the course of an hour and a half everybody finds themselves nodding their head, or even clapping, at a few things the guy says. And I imagine an awful lot of people walking away at the end thinking that they don't agree with this Santorum fellow on a lot of things, but he seems decent and smart and well-informed, which ain't bad. And then, at the end, if they find themselves actively disliking all the other choices... well, that Santorum fellow seemed decent enough. And that, apparently, gets you second place in Iowa these days.
We'll see how far that gets him in New Hampshire. Working in his favor are Gingrich, as well as Jon Huntsman, who will likely turn off voters even as they bring down Romney's poll numbers. Santorum has the advantage of a spotlight coming out of Iowa, and can potentially portray himself as the decent guy in the race -- but he has to do it fast. And at better venues.