That Old Santorum Magic

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 5 2012 5:57 PM

That Old Santorum Magic

CONCORD, N.H. -- When you're a no-hope candidate, you agree to any invitation you get. When he was low in the polls, Santorum signed up for a post-Iowa Caucus speech at the Center for Civic Engagement's College Convention 2012. I walked in the door and immediately saw a picked-over table of Libertarian Party merchandise. This would not be a Santorum-centric crowd.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

And it wasn't. Santorum spent much of his time sparring with liberal and libertarian-minded college students about gay marriage and drug laws. For anyone who watched Santorum in his wilderness period, it was an acid flashback -- the surging candidate in the GOP race all of a sudden debating the fine points of love and personal responsibily.

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It felt like Santorum brought on the negativity. Not on purpose, really. He just made an early decision to ask the crowd if they knew the national motto. Very few hands went up. "That's what I'm talking about," grimaced Santorum, sad to find proof that the youth were lost and restless. After this one student asked, in a rambling sort of way, if banning gay marriage was violating the idea of "the right to happiness."

"Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?" asked Santorum. "Anyone can marry anybody else? So anyone can marry several people?"

Yep, it was a discussion of polygramy. The college students barely outnumbered members of the media, and they had become the audio track for new video of Rick Santorum Talking About Gays and Getting Booed. It didn't help that the questions were half-baked, some of them yelled as the candidate forged ahead. After Santorum told the students that they'd be happier and richer if they got married -- citing a Brookings study he often cites before young crowds -- he got an irritated student complaining that he wasn't talking about realistic, non-religious concepts.

"I hate to recognize shouters," said Santorum. "Ohhhhhhhh, realistic thinking? I just talked to you about realistic values. I just told you what the numbers were."

Santorum finished up and the students who weren't converted booed his exit. A couple of conservatives who'd stayed in the room to watch shook their heads at the spectable. "I think he ought to give his campaign manager a smack."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.