Rick Santorum's New Hampshire Problem

Rick Santorum's extremely conservative views on social issues won't play outside of Iowa.

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Former Sen. Rick Santorum had his own "oops" moment in New Hampshire this week—not because he couldn't remember his own agenda (like opponent Gov. Rick Perry in one of the debates), but because he seemed to forget that some parts of his agenda play better among some crowds than others.

[Read: Who Is Rick Santorum?]

At an event in Tilton, N.H., Santorum, who was among the most fervent opponents of gay marriage when he was a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, got into a verbal scuffle with voters on the issue. Asked about his opposition to gay marriage—which is legal in New Hampshire—Santorum compared the idea to polygamy, saying:

So anyone can marry anyone else?  So anyone can marry several people?

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The remark was similar to comments Santorum made to an Associated Press reporter in 2003, when the then-senator was asked about anti-sodomy laws in Texas that were being challenged in the courts. Said the senator:

In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.

Santorum gets points for intellectual consistency. But fresh off a stunning success in Iowa, where evangelicals are a powerful element in the GOP, Santorum may have forgotten that people think differently in the Granite State. It's not that Republicans there are frequenting gay pride parades; it's that New Hampshirites are proudly independent and don't want the government telling them they can't do things, including marrying a person of the same sex.

[Vote: Can Rick Santorum Win the 2012 GOP Nomination?]

One of the reasons success in Iowa doesn't always translate into a momentum that takes a candidate to the White House is that voters—even voters in the same party—think differently in different states. Santorum's social conservative message might play well for him in the upcoming primary in South Carolina, but it is less effective in a place like New Hampshire, where fiscal conservatives and small-government advocates dominate the party. Santorum has many challenges ahead of him without the issue of his social conservatism—not the least of which is that he has nowhere near the cash and organization of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Understanding the different personalities of the early primary states is an added complication.

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