Learn To Talk Like Rick Santorum

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 5 2012 6:38 PM

Learn To Talk Like Rick Santorum

The Q-W-A Maneuver, the Pop Quiz, and more of the Republican candidate’s best rhetorical tricks.

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum meets and greets in New Hampshire.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

NORTHFIELD, N.H.—You’re angry, you’re confused, and Rick Santorum knows why.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“This administration is crushing the business community,” he says at a town hall here, in a rehabbed train station warmed by 150 or so voters and 50 or so reporters. “WHY? Because they know better!”

This is what I have come to know as the Santorum Q-W-A Maneuver. First comes the rhetorical question. Then comes the WHY?, delivered in a rasp that vacates his lungs. Then—phew!—comes the common-sensical answer.

“The Social Security deficit has been made worse by this president. WHY? Because he’s reduced the payroll tax!”

“There was a push to sign up more people to Medicare. WHY? Because they wanted to get people dependent. They wanted to get you hooked.”

Santorum arrived in New Hampshire on Wednesday after a photo-finish Iowa loss to Mitt Romney that might as well have been a win. His crowds in towns like these, 30- or 60-minute rides from Manchester, are never smaller than 100. Some perspective: At a morning rally in Plymouth, not far from here, in another rehabbed train station (converted into a nursing home), only half as many people trekked to hear Newt Gingrich. In the insta-polls that tell the media who and what to cover, Jon Huntsman—who’s campaigned here and only here since the summer, making more than 100 stops and countless excruciating jokes about his “New Hampshire accent”—is tied with Johnny-come-lately Santorum.

Over 24 hours, I watched Santorum, Huntsman, and Gingrich sell themselves to New Hampshire voters. It wasn’t fair. Winning (or almost winning) one of the early states makes a candidate Serious. In Tilton, I stop into a pizza place near Santorum’s event and meet Joe DiBiase, a nice guy with a Bluetooth headset who has just heard the Gospel of Santorum.

“I don’t like Romney,” he says. “I like that guy who came in second in Ohio, or whatever it was.”

This is a cozy, warm place that only really exists in presidential primaries. Nobody expects Santorum to surge and win New Hampshire. When he leaves the Tilton event, pushing through a crush of reporters like Patrick McGoohan trying to escape The Island’s prison ball, he gets a question about “victory” and blows it off in a totally reasonable way.

“The poll before Iowa had me at 4 percent,” he says. “Second [in New Hampshire] would mean a 20-percent rise, but I had a lot more time in Iowa.”

Well, yeah. Neither Santorum nor anyone on his campaign team says he’ll win. He can only Beat Expectations. So New Hampshire is a sandbox, a demo reel, a way to take batting practice against hard questions before he tries to win South Carolina.

How’s he doing? It helps to see the other Not Romneys in action. At that morning town hall, Gingrich spoke for 24 long minutes, half-heartedly trying to explain why he’s stronger than Santorum—a “junior partner” in the Republican revolution. I caught up with Huntsman, very briefly, as he psyched up supporters at his campaign headquarters. (Ominously, it’s in the Manchester office space that used to be occupied by the Rudy Giuliani campaign.) “Psyching up” is a relative term with Huntsman, who hardly expresses emotion about anything now that he has no reason to trash Iowa anymore.

At Hunstman HQ, I spotted former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who shared ballots with Santorum throughout the 1990s, and who never thought of endorsing him. “I’m a governor-centric guy,” he explained. “I say, with enormous respect, it’s one thing to give big speeches and vote, but it’s another very different quality to articulate a broader vision, implement a plan, build consensus around the plan, and execute.” He rhetorically patted Santorum on the head. “He got, what, over 6 percent of the registered Republican voters? That’s basically what he got.”

But just look at what he’s doing with it. He’s the only lifelong Catholic (Gingrich is a recent convert) in the primary; four years ago, 38 percent of New Hampshire Republican voters were Catholic. Between Huntsman, Romney, and Gingrich, he’s the only one who didn’t grow up with money or get wealthy in the Bush years. The Q-W-A Maneuver is one of many Santorum rhetorical tricks, habits developed during four Pennsylvania campaigns to stoke social conservatives and convince blue-collar voters that he’d be a great drinking buddy. Other Santorum techniques include the Interactive History, in which he plays a game of charades to re-enact some key period of his life or argument he lost. At a town hall in Brentwood, N.H., he swept his arm to describe the scope of the Monongahela Valley, which he once represented in Congress. “The river used to be lined with steel mills, as far as you could see,” he said. “There’s one now. Well, one, and then one or two steel-rolling mills.”

At the same event he held up a Sharpie, and told us it was the social security trust fund. “What did the Federal government do with the money?” he asked. “Gone!” He pointed to an invisible box. “It’s over here, in a file drawer in West Virginia with a piece of paper. We’re going to take that piece of paper, and go and get another from—WHO? China.” This is an argument Santorum lost in the 1990s and in 2005. Other, clumsier Republicans have since made him sound more reasonable. “I don’t believe social security is a Ponzi scheme,” he explained, assuring older voters that he wasn’t out to take anything away from them.

Somewhere between the Interactive History and the Q-W-A Maneuver is the Pop Quiz. Santorum reserves this for the voters who doubt that he’s right, a group that’s more numerous in New Hampshire than they were in Iowa. In Brentwood and in Tilton, he saved foreign policy questions for last, then asked a series of questions about Iran— “I’ve focused like a laser on Iran for seven years”—that he had the answers to. Did anyone know where Iran was enriching uranium? Qom, a city of great religious importance (and he could tell you why). Did anyone know when the coming social security eligibility age increase was scheduled? In 1983, “which shows you how brilliant those guys were. Brilliant politicians!”

The average New Hampshire Republican is seeing this for the first time. It’s wearing well so far, even among voters who expect Santorum to lose.

“Romney’s gonna take New Hampshire, no question,” says Kevin Mochen, a retired firefighter. Four years ago, he voted for the man who actually won the state, John McCain. That guy was a war hero, but if we’re just talking about politics, Mochen prefers Santorum.

“McCain didn’t seem like he was a strong guy, like his father the admiral was,” says Mochen. “He wanted to be the friend of everybody.”

What does Santorum want?

“I think he wants to be respected.”

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