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Right Turn
Posted at 10:31 AM ET, 01/06/2012

EXCLUSIVE: Karen Santorum on Rick, faith and the campaign

Karen Santorum is undoubtedly one of her husband’s greatest assets. A professional woman (she met her future husband when he was a lawyer at a major Pittsburgh law firm and she was a second-year law student), who was one of 12 children and whose parents grew up in poverty, she exudes a joyfulness in her role as confidante, first friend, political ally and wife.

In an early-morning phone interview, today she was breezy and enthusiastic, evidencing no sign of the fatigue that comes with long days and little sleep. She has largely avoided interviews and is slowly coming to terms with her more public profile.

Tuesday night in Iowa, she and her husband appeared elated, if not a bit shocked by his remarkable rise. She still seems amazed by the outcome. “Oh my goodness, after all the work . . . it was a great feeling. We were joyful and grateful.” The triumph came after a long process contemplating a run and then toiling in obscurity.

The decision to run was not taken lightly. “It was a process,” she says. ”It was at least a year.” She adds, “We’ve always had a strong prayer life.” They became convinced that “this is what he should be doing.” But she adds that it was also a family affair. “We had some funny discussions with the kids,” she recalls.

There was, of course, months in which virtually no one in the media covered him, and he spoke to only handfuls of voters. She says they took this in stride. “They have always discounted Rick.” But they were determined to soldier on. “You just work hard,” she says matter-of-factly.” We have no idea how it will all turn out.”

The key to their serenity may be their lack of expectations and a refusal to look ahead. She hasn’t considered what she would do as first lady: “I don’t think that far ahead. We are focused on New Hampshire and South Carolina.” As Ann Romney did in an interview with me this week, Karen Santorum confirms that the trials and tribulations on the grueling campaign trail are a bonding experience for the candidates’ spouses and families. She says she “loves the spouses” and prays for them daily. In the common experience of watching debates (“It’s hard when someone you love so much” is getting criticized, she confesses) and undergoing media scrutiny, it is not surprising that the spouses provide solace to one another.

She is plainly a respected adviser. Last fall, when I interviewed Rick Santorum, meeting with him at the Values Voter summit in Washington, it was obvious how critical a role his wife plays in the campaign. Before he began the interview, he went over to consult privately with her. A senior campaign adviser stood respectfully at a distance. Head down and listening intently, he evidently took her counsel seriously. In the interview, he noted that his wife had often counseled him to smile more and lighten up a bit in the debates. In my interview with her, she likened her campaign advice to gut checks that any couple provide for one another. She laughs: “You go to a party. You say, ‘Fix your tie.’ ”

In the campaign context, she serves as a counterweight to his sometimes brooding intensity and feisty determination to be recognized in debates and credited with accomplishments in the Senate. She says she wishes that voters could see, in addition to his “core conviction,” that he is funny and a devoted family man. “I wish people could see that when he walks through the door,” whether as a senator or presidential candidate, he sheds his political persona. “He’s cooking or playing on the floor with the kids or taking the garbage out or working in the yard.”

Part of what defines the couple is their dogged work ethic, perhaps born of their humble upbringing. They take nothing for granted and are prepared to outwork and out-hustle the opposition. Santorum’s daily schedule often includes six or seven public events, rather than the two or three that most candidates attend. Karen Santorum confirms that this has been his style for the 23 years she has known him.

She recalls their first meeting: He was the lawyer at the big firm, she was the law student. She says that she was the headstrong career woman. ”But I came home that night and wrote in my diary that I had met the man I was going to marry.” As hard as it may be to picture, she says, “He sang all the way to the restaurant” on their first date.

Santorum’s blue-collar appeal and his ability to relate to voters who used to be in the “Reagan Democrat” category stem in large part from his and his wife’s background. Speaking of the immigrant story that the Santorums and many Americans can relate to, she tells me, “It’s one of the best things about our nation. Through hard work and education, you can really rise.”

And while pundits and political operatives doubted that either a Mormon or a Catholic could break through among evangelical Iowans, the experience of the Santorums, who are Catholic, proved otherwise. “What we saw in Iowa was so refreshing. They weren’t going to leave any stone unturned.” That determination to size up the candidates, she says, is “a great reflection on America.”

As Santorum comes under the glare of increased scrutiny, he’s be wise to make sure voters get to know his wife. Voters want, polls invariably show, a candidate who they think shares their values and understands their concerns. It’s a truism that spouses can humanize and soften a candidate’s image, and Karen Santorum is a great example of this. Her cheeriness and effervescence balance his feistiness and bulldoggish determination. In her telling, what his critics portray as inflexibility or ideological rigidity seems like admirable conviction. Moreover, she amplifies how sincere his religious faith is.

If she can soften his sharper edges and help him project the more personal, gentler side (which we saw Tuesday night), he will, I suspect, be the most successful of the not-Mitt Romney candidates. But the Santorums don’t seem to fear failure; They’re doing what they think they are supposed to be doing.

By  |  10:31 AM ET, 01/06/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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