NASHUA, N.H. — Rick Santorum didn't do Marco Rubio any favors when, in his first appearance as a Rubio endorser, he couldn't name his former rival's Senate accomplishments. But if Santorum lost Rubio any votes with that awkward TV appearance, he may be repaying Rubio, in a quiet way, by bringing former Santorum supporters, specifically those deeply motivated by the issue of life, into the Rubio camp.
Like Jim and Valerie Somers, who came to Rubio's election-eve rally Monday at Nashua Community College. For Valerie especially, life is the most important issue, and both she and her husband supported Santorum in 2012 and earlier in this campaign. "I started moving away from Santorum right after Iowa," Valerie told me before the Rubio rally. "I saw his numbers dwindling and thought we don't want to waste our vote." When Santorum threw his support to Rubio, it helped confirm Jim and Valerie's inclination to support the Florida senator.
For voters like the Somers, the media discussion of Rubio's debate performance didn't really affect their views of him on the big issues. Yes, they thought Rubio messed up with the repetitive answers, but far more important was his set piece on life — his reaffirmation of a no-exceptions abortion policy and his critique of the media and Democrats on the other side of the issue.
"He held his own, and he stayed principled," Valerie told me. "He definitely came off well for me, and Jeb attacking him on the exceptions really hurt Jeb with me."
And so Marco Rubio had two more voters.
Talks with Rubio supporters — or near-supporters, since many said they were only 98 percent sure, leaving themselves just a little room to change their minds — showed again how the concerns of media commentators are sometimes far from the minds of actual voters. Is Rubio a robot? Did his debate flub show he is not ready for the nation's highest office? It's not that supporters ignored the questions; they considered them and decided that other things, like his position on abortion, were more important.
A walk around the rally also showed that personal touches matter, especially when a candidate has a spate of negative media coverage to overcome. Rubio often tells audiences that after his remarks he'll be happy to stay around as long as anyone wants to talk to him. The importance of doing that became clear in Nashua Monday night with John and Margie Sengstaken, of Hollis, who came in with a favorable attitude toward Rubio but had not yet fully decided.
"I went into the debate leaning towards Rubio, and honestly I came out of the debate feeling ummmm, I don't know," Margie told me.
Then she came to the rally and stayed afterward to meet Rubio. I noticed that they chatted with him for quite a while, and I approached them afterward. As it turned out, any apprehensive feelings from the debate were erased by face-to-face time with the candidate. "The Chris Christie exchange, that troubled me," Margie said as we stood near where Rubio was still shaking hands and meeting voters, half an hour after ending his speech. "I was undecided until just now. But after this — look at him right now with all these people. He's taking the time, the care. It makes a difference when you come and meet them and shake their hand. I mean, he shook my hand three times."
John agreed. "I like Chris Christie, but right now I'm leaning toward Rubio, probably because of tonight."
As it happened, the Sengstakens went to Donald Trump's townhall in Londonderry earlier in the day. It was a small, uncharacteristically intimate Trump event, and afterward the Sengstakens stayed to meet the candidate. "It was a very different experience," Margie told me. Trump did a quick handshake, photo, but didn't stop to talk. "He was nice, but he just had this bit of arrogance," Margie said.
I didn't get the impression that the Sengstakens were ever seriously considering voting for Trump. But they did take the trouble to go see him, they did want to give him a look, and some personal attention might have made their decision more difficult. That's how politics is done in a small state where one-on-one interactions are still quite common.
Jim and Valerie and John and Margie are just four voters. But they have friends, and their friends have friends. If a candidate does enough of that kind of campaigning, he can reach a lot of people.
It's often been noted in the past that Rubio has relied too much on television interviews, rather than day-to-day retail politics, to reach voters. But in the last days of the New Hampshire contest, as in Iowa, Rubio showed that taking the time to meet people can pay off.