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Santorum rides his wave to Granite State

Candidates warns against calling race

A day after nearly beating Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum last night told New Hampshire voters not to believe media portrayals of certain candidates as more "electable" than others.

"Everybody says this race is over. There's one candidate who's way ahead, and he's going to win," the former Pennsylvania senator said, addressing close to 200 people packed into an auditorium at the Rockingham County Nursing Home in Brentwood.

But "not a vote has been cast," he said. While his campaign has struggled to raise money, "if people here in New Hampshire give us a shot," he said, "my guess is we'll be doing a lot better."

The Republican presidential candidate, who staged a grass-roots campaign in Iowa while riding shotgun across the state in a pickup truck, is riding a new wave of momentum in the wake of his split victory with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor with far deeper pockets.

Yesterday, his campaign received 50 percent of the money it has raised to date, Santorum said.

And voters turned out in droves to hear him speak at the Brentwood nursing home, which was at capacity half an hour before the event began.

To those who had been fans of Santorum's socially conservative stances but weren't sure how he would fare against the other Republican candidates, the near-victory in Iowa lent new legitimacy to his campaign.

"I actually liked him in the beginning, but to be quite honest, I wasn't sure how electable he was," said Bob Heichlinger, 67, of Raymond. "Even if I liked a candidate, if I didn't think he was electable, I wouldn't want to waste a vote."

Even with the strong Iowa finish, however, Heichlinger and his wife said they weren't sure how Santorum would fare under a heightened media spotlight: "I'm afraid he's going to be eaten alive," Marlene Heichlinger said.

Last night's event drew a large turnout for Santorum, including more than 60 reporters. But the candidate didn't shy from taking as many questions as he could, spending a full hour and a half at the nursing home.

"Hopefully I'll wear you down," he said as hands shot into the air, more than an hour into the town hall meeting.

He responded at length to several questions on Social Security - "It's my last point, I promise," he said, as he explained why he wanted to curb benefits for higher-income seniors - and spoke bluntly. In relating his efforts as a senator to work with then-President Clinton to reform the program, he told the crowd, "We were actually working on something, and Monica Lewinsky's dress popped off."

Throughout the town hall, Santorum answered questions by pointing to his philosophical differences with President Obama, who "convinced the American public you needed a president you could believe in," he said.

"What I hear from the American people today . . . you want a president who believes in you," Santorum said to applause. He said Obama was "systematically destroying" the work ethic.

"How?" he continued. "By the narcotic of government dependence."

Santorum also worked to draw contrasts between the other Republican candidates. He didn't mention Romney by name, but repeatedly described himself as a conservative who doesn't change his convictions to please moderate voters.

Voters may not agree with him on every issue, "but what you know is I agree with me on every issue," he said.

"Don't settle for a Pyrrhic victory," he said. "Don't settle for someone who can win, but then can't do, won't do, and has no track record of doing the big things that are necessary to change this country."

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)