My side has made some completely unrealistic suggestions. Some have suggested that he imitate Barney Frank who responded to such a conspiracist by asking her on what planet she spent most of her time and saying that talking to her was about as productive as talking to his dining room table. That's an appalling way for any politician to talk to a constituent, no matter how nutty. Still Barney Frank could get away with it, confident in the knowledge that neither his interlocutor nor anyone who share her views would ever vote for him anyhow. Furthermore, most people in his district shared his views and were happy to hear him tell his heckler what they had been wanting to say for a long time. Santorum, on the other hand, was dealing with someone whose support he was trying to win. That makes basic courtesy (at a minimum) a must. Furthermore, unfortunately, Republican candidates these days have to deal quite regularly with the sort of people who think Obama was narrowly thwarted from nuking Charleston. What is a politician to do?
More realistically, he could have followed the example of Bill Clinton, who responded to a 9-11 truther by saying in no uncertain terms that his conspiracy theory was dead wrong, and that they should stick to real issues. Ditto John McCain who responded to birthers by assuring them that Obama was a citizen and a decent guy who he merely had disagreements with. Democrats, after all, are trying to keep the crazies out of their party. The sane wing of the Republican Party (to which McCain belongs except when he gets a chance to start a war) also wants to keep out the crazies, at least during the primary season. The general election may be different. McCain was much criticized by his party for his attempts to calm and/or refute the crazies on the grounds that Republicans need their energy to run their operations and get out the vote. And in any event, Republican candidates who want to keep the crazies out don't usually go to events like the South Carolina National Security Action Summit, at least not during primary season. If you go to places where the crazies hang out, it is presumably because you are courting the crazy vote. Which means you have to learn to indulge crazies without actually endorsing their viewpoints.
I defer to Kevin Drum and his comments on Mitt Romney's infamous 47% speech. He is speaking of donors rather than activists, but the essential point is the same:
[A] politician with even a tenuous grasp on how to handle this kind of pressure knows what to do: you redirect. You can't tell these folks they're crazy, of course. They're true believers! And they're rich! You need their money. [Or, in the case of activists, their energy in your ground game]. But you can't really agree with them either. That's too dangerous. Word gets around, even if nobody there is secretly recording the event. So you soothe. I get where you're coming from. And then you back away. Maybe you blame it on polling data ("our focus groups show that voters don't respond well to that, and you do want to win, don't you?") Maybe you change the subject. Maybe you introduce some interesting new fact that they've never heard of. Maybe you appeal to authority. Or you outsource your response to a surrogate later on so that you're not personally connected with it. Whatever.He goes on to say that the inability to handle this sort of thing shows a political ineptitude that is most undesirable in a President.
That is, of course, exactly what Rich Santorum did. He seized on the one thing in her rant that they could agree on (her anger that Congress did not stop Obama's executive order granting temporary work visas to some illegal immigrants brought over when they were under age) and proceeded to address it with great base-rallying vigor. So we now know that Santorum is a deft politician. He knows how to handle certifiable crazies from the base.
Of course, none of that would actually inspire me to vote for him.