At any moment, reporters were on the lookout for a candidate ready to “surge”—to say something particularly biting at a debate or to jump on an opponent’s gaffe—but the race was really for second place, or maybe even third among Mr. Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich. Rick Perry, who, back before he started speaking, did actually seem like a legitimate opponent to Mr. Romney, all but abandoned New Hampshire for the Palmetto State. Reporters from national outlets had done the same, convincing assignment editors that South Carolina would be where the real action was, where the right wing of the party would make its final stand against Mr. Romney (and the facts that in South Carolina the weather was nicer, the politics dirtier, the girls supposedly prettier and the booze flowed freer helped them make the case more persuasively).
Down by the lake, Ms. Hutchings said that she had come to New Hampshire and to Mr. Santorum’s impromptu speech for a little “bird-dogging.”
She took out a piece of paper and read from it.
“The term bird-dog comes from hunting. The bird-dog’s job is to flush out the bird. Politicians are birds who try to keep their positions hidden behind vague rhetoric.”
She flipped the paper over and recited her script a couple of times. It contained a question about Scandinavia and longitudinal studies and paid family leave.
“And I’m guessing he’ll say, ‘No,’ because that’s socialist or whatever, and he’s an asshole.”
On the stump, Mr. Santorum comes across something like an 11-year-old whose buddies have just discovered his parents’ liquor cabinet. He doesn’t so much inspire as he pleads, trying to guilt-trip New Hampshirites into doing the right thing.
“I really do hope that the people of this state will do what is right, what is necessary,” he said, his voice rising up a notch or two as if trying to bore its way into the conscious of its audience. “People in this state are as involved in politics as any state in the country. That is why I have always defended New Hampshire as the first in the nation primary. You take this primary seriously, you step up and you lead when your country needs you.”
The night before, Mr. Santorum appeared at the Hillsborough County Republican Committee gala in the southern corner of the state. This was Republican red-meat territory. At the invocation at the start of the evening, a woman from the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women bowed her head, paid homage to “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, Creator and Sovereign Over All … I pray for President Obama, that You would turn his heart to fear Your name.” (Afterward, The Observer asked her if God did turn President Obama’s heart around, if she would support him. She looked generally perplexed at this theological conundrum. “Hmmm. If God did turn his heart? I would have to see some proof. I still want a Republican who is a true conservative in office.”)
Newt Gingrich was there and tore into Mr. Romney for not knowing what he thinks, and for raising taxes while he was governor of Massachusetts, including, he said a tax on people merely for being visually impaired. “A tax on people who are blind. I know they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but really.” Rand Paul was there too, in his capacity as an increasingly bored surrogate for his father. (“Now everybody is going to be quiet, right, so you can hear my speech, right? It’s tough to give a speech twice in one night so I’m going to keep this one really short.”)
In the hallways, talk turned to what was most to dislike about President Obama—“I think it’s preserving our Constitutional liberties that is more important.” “I think we have to do something about these regulations that are strangling business.” One of Jon Huntsman’s daughters attracted the attentions of television cameras. A stand sold conservative pins with slogans like “That’s Not an Angry Mob—That’s My Mother.”
Outside by the doorway, Robert Stacey McCain, a conservative activist and blogger, who seems every bit like a chain-smoking Southern-drawling operative out of All the King’s Men tipped back his suede hat and panted over the Huntsman daughter.
“Did you see her? Oh, god! Oh, my god! Wow. It’s because I’m old and harmless now she’ll talk to me. If I had been out on the hunt she would have spotted me for a dangerous character right away.”
He caught himself and explained how this was the right’s last chance to stick it to mainstream Wall Street Republicans and maybe derail the Romney train.