A Warm Welcome for Santorum


Texan Tom Bragg shows off GOP buttons for sale. (M.T. Elliott)

TILTON, N.H. (Jan. 5, 2012) — Rick Santorum rode his swell of popularity and media attention from Iowa through central New Hampshire Thursday afternoon.

Santorum, who is campaigning as a staunch conservative, finished just 8 votes behind front-runner Mitt Romney in Iowa. On Thursday in New Hampshire, he made his way through a ’50s-style diner crowded by cameras and the occasional waitress to shake hands with supporters and possibly convince some of New Hampshire’s prized undecided voters.

The Tilt’n Diner was decorated in hues of pink and blue, with vinyl records rimming its walls. It is a popular campaign stop for candidates during the presidential primary season. Waitresses said Newt Gingrich paid a surprise visit Wednesday but brought none of the media buzz that Santorum did, waitresses said.

As Santorum worked the crowd, Tom Bragg, 55, brought a touch of Texas to the event. He’s from Honey Grove, in northeast Texas. He wore the only cowboy hat in the diner. Ordinarily he’s a rancher. But in this campaign season, he’s been on the political trail. After the Iowa primary ended, Bragg drove straight to New Hampshire. He will follow the candidates to South Carolina, he said, and to Florida before he returns to his Black Mark Ranch in Honey Grove.

At the Tilt’n Diner on Thursday, he held a display of large buttons with pro-Santorum or anti-Obama messages for supporters to buy. He’s a supporter of fellow Texan Ron Paul, a libertarian candidate. But on Thursday, Bragg filled in for a Santorum vendor because Ron Paul had no events in the state.

Of  Paul, he said, “I love his enthusiasm. I dig his stance on income tax and on Iran.”

Also at the Tilt’ Diner, Don and Vicki Starkweather came for lunch and to get an impression of Santorum as a person and a candidate. They are  among the registered Republicans in the state who consider themselves “very” undecided.

“Definitely not Ron Paul,” Don Starkweather, 46, said. “He’s a little too radical.”

The Starkweathers took in the spectacle, trying to catch a glimpse of Santorum as he maneuvered through the diner, trailed by microphones and cameras, and eventually toward their side of the diner. The Starkweathers, both Catholic, said they were drawn to Santorum’s conservative stance. But they were not sure he could defeat Obama in the presidential race.

Don was so eager to meet Santorum that he jumped up to shake Santorum’s hand. And then he froze. Afterwards, he recalled, “All I could think to say was ‘Welcome to New Hampshire.’”

(M.T. Elliott, a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at Syracuse University, is covering the New Hampshire primary for the San Angelo Standard-Times.)


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