NORTHFIELD, N.H. - Of all the places I never wanted to find myself in this new year, the most obvious being any car driven by Tim Murray, a Rick Santorum for President event would rank very high on that list.
Seriously, just a couple of weeks ago, the guy didn’t even have events. They were more like incidents, virtually unnoticed in this circus of a Republican campaign. Most people assumed he was running because of his seven kids, as in: “Hey, honey, have the little munchkins call me on their way to bed. I’ll be in Iowa for the next year talking about family values.’’
But a funny thing happened in this week’s caucus. After cycling through every other possible Mitt Romney alternative, the voters had just one candidate left, so there was Rick Santorum, in the right place at the right time.
Which is how I came to be standing in a renovated train depot in this idyllic New Hampshire hamlet yesterday, me and what felt like a million other people. All 100-plus folding chairs were occupied. Residents lined every inch of the wood-planked walls. Reporters and cameramen battled for inches in the back of the room.
Santorum walked in through a rear door, on time and all alone, the picture of absolute calm. He stood before the crowd with neither a microphone nor notes and delivered a low-key civics lesson on America’s ills, conservative style, talking in depth about Social Security funding, Medicare alternatives, the importance of a strong defense, and foreign policy choices. Notably, he never invoked his God.
The crowd ate it up, for good reason. All of a sudden, Santorum could basically turn the phone book into a compelling narrative. Just for chuckles, contrast that with Mitt Romney’s first post-Iowa event the day before in Manchester, an exquisite disaster.
There were indications that Romney was finding his voice and stride on the Great Plains, that he was filling his speeches with soaring rhetoric about the beauty of America and the promise of its people. He forgot to pack the magic for the trip back east.
He arrived on stage in a ridiculously ham-handed pair of whiskered jeans that screamed fern bar more than farm field - “Dirty martini, please, hold the alcohol.’’ Words tumbled out of his mouth nearly incoherently. Sentences crashed into each other. Thoughts careened out of control, not a punctuation mark to be found. The lowlight came when Romney’s new friend, John McCain, puffed out his chest and ominously told a heckling kid from Occupy Boston, “Hey, be quiet.’’
Back to Santorum. For more than an hour, he bantered easily, his answers sometimes humorous and always detailed. He even invoked Robert Frost, as in, “I’d like to stay and answer more questions, but miles to go before I sleep.’’
But just as I was about to slip under his spell, I remembered something, something about Santorum, something that had been nagging all along. Yes, of course, Boston, the Catholic priest scandal, and his absurd insult of an entire city.
Let’s go right to Santorum’s 2002 quote: “While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.’’
This from the same senator who intruded on Terri Schiavo’s deathbed and said she was “executed’’ when they pulled life support. He told The New York Times that gay marriage “absolutely’’ threatens his own marriage. He once compared homosexuality to bestiality. No wonder he lost his 2006 Senate seat by 18 points.
I tried to ask him whether he regretted his remarks about Boston, but given the newfound popularity, you couldn’t get near the guy. So I slipped his one aide a note. I’m sure he’ll call when he has the time, which will be exactly when voters remember what Santorum is really all about.
Until then, stay tuned. This Republican road show is only getting better.Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.