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All New Hampshire's a Stage

A playwright sizes up the theatrics of the GOP performers who want to be America's next top politician.

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EST

The Santorum Penance took place on the Rivier College football field at 9 a.m. on Monday. It was a frigid morning. The media, at least, was out in force. You had to admire Santorum's gutsy attire in the 29-degree weather: blue jeans, brown boots, and just a light blue jacket. Riding high on his Iowa results, Santorum exuded a self-awareness as refreshing as the bracing air. "Small business is a big deal here in New Hampshire, right?" he asked. When that was greeted with little more than three fading claps from a lady wearing gloves, he quipped, "Applauding with gloves on is not the most effective thing, you can keep the muted applause." Points for improv. And Santorum's performance was strong on gestures; in addition to a thumb jab, he made a pummeling motion with his fist worthy of Borat when he said, regarding Obama and business, "if it's big, he likes it, if it's small, he'll crush it."

I tried to ask an event producer why they held the show outdoors on a football field in early January in New Hampshire, but he waved me off. At most there were about 50 supporters in attendance, and they were outnumbered by all the reporters. Two of the Santorum faithful, Matt Noonan, 45 of Drake, Mass., and Rich Parks, 41, of Nashua said they loved the simple setting: the stark beauty of the New Hampshire woods and the dual flags flanking the stage. Noting their dueling Yankees and Red Sox caps, I asked if the New Hampshire show was as exciting as baseball's great rivalry. "Nah, nothing's better than Red Sox-Yankees," Parks replied.

The Jon Huntsman Air Show on Monday night gave notice that Romney's is not the only Broadway-quality production on tour in New Hampshire. Projected lights bathed the white columns of the Exeter town hall exterior in blue and red, which made it feel like you were walking into a silky concrete American flag. In the press balcony, there was Huntsman, looking every bit a Top Gun in a black leather bomber jacket and brown jeans, sitting on the bunting-wreathed banister and chatting coolly with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren. Huntsman's people distributed red, white, and blue pompoms and the faithful kicked off several rousing chants of "Join The Hunt!"

Then, bathed in hot white lighting, and with U2's "Beautiful Day" pumping, Huntsman led his shining blonde wife Mary Kaye through the crowd. When he hit his mark in the center of the hall, he raised his arms in triumph, gave a couple of champion fist pumps, and basked in the adulation. Introduced by the county commissioner as no longer the "margin of error candidate," the surging Huntsman made it clear that if he's going down in the primary, he'll do it in a blaze of glory that would make Goose proud. The Exeter Town Hall was ready for liftoff. "Can you feel the energy?" Huntsman asked. The crowd roared. His monologue was short on policy and long on pump-up, leading to chants of "USA!" and "Huntsman!"

"That is a pretty awesome deal when you're going down the highway and you see a sign with your name on it—that's pretty cool!" he shouted over the crowd. He gave the most extemporaneous monologue I'd seen yet, including lines like, "We're gonna tell Congress, we're gonna dock your pay till you balance the damn budget!" and "We're a blue-sky-problem-solving-optimistic-can-do-people!"

Darrell Smith, 36, a truck loader for Boston TV channel NECN said the Huntsman spectacle was a recent development. "When Huntsman started it was like the Cain events, a couple college kids throwing it together. They didn't understand spacing, they didn't understand room, they didn't understand camera. Huntsman got his act together."

As the music swelled at the end, a huge bang rang out and confetti showered down, startling the crowd and cranking the volume to eleven. Whatever transpires with Tuesday's vote, most of the folks who showed up for this performance will probably agree that they got plenty of bang for their buck.

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