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Father First, Senator Second

For Rick Santorum, Politics Could Hardly Get More Personal

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C01

In his Senate office, on a shelf next to an autographed baseball, Sen. Rick Santorum keeps a framed photo of his son Gabriel Michael, the fourth of his seven children. Named for two archangels, Gabriel Michael was born prematurely, at 20 weeks, on Oct. 11, 1996, and lived two hours outside the womb.

Upon their son's death, Rick and Karen Santorum opted not to bring his body to a funeral home. Instead, they bundled him in a blanket and drove him to Karen's parents' home in Pittsburgh. There, they spent several hours kissing and cuddling Gabriel with his three siblings, ages 6, 4 and 1 1/2. They took photos, sang lullabies in his ear and held a private Mass.

"When you stick your head out of the foxhole, people shoot at you. I've stuck my head out of a foxhole," says Sen. Rick Santorum. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

"That's my little guy," Santorum says, pointing to the photo of Gabriel, in which his tiny physique is framed by his father's hand. The senator often speaks of his late son in the present tense. It is a rare instance in which he talks softly.

He and Karen brought Gabriel's body home so their children could "absorb and understand that they had a brother," Santorum says. "We wanted them to see that he was real," not an abstraction, he says. Not a "fetus," either, as Rick and Karen were appalled to see him described -- "a 20-week-old fetus" -- on a hospital form. They changed the form to read "20-week-old baby."

Karen Santorum, a former nurse, wrote letters to her son during and after her pregnancy. She compiled them into a book, "Letters to Gabriel," a collection of prayers, Bible passages and a chronicle of the prenatal complications that led to Gabriel's premature delivery. At one point, her doctor raised the prospect of an abortion, an "option" Karen ridicules. "Letters to Gabriel" also derides "pro-abortion activists" and decries the "infanticide" of "partial-birth abortion," the legality of which Rick Santorum was then debating in the Senate. The book reads, in places, like a call to action.

"When the partial-birth abortion vote comes to the floor of the U.S. Senate for the third time," Karen writes to Gabriel, "your daddy needs to proclaim God's message for life with even more strength and devotion to the cause."

The issue came up again the following spring. Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, appeared on the Senate floor with oversize illustrations of fetuses in various stages of delivery. He described the process by which a physician "brutally kills" a child "by thrusting a pair of scissors into the back of its skull and suctioning its brains out." He asked that a 5-year-old girl be admitted to the visitors' gallery, though Senate rules forbid children under 6. "She is very interested in the subject," Santorum said, explaining that the girl's mother had been a candidate for a late-term abortion when doctors advised her during her pregnancy that the child was unlikely to survive.

Sen. Barbara Boxer objected, saying it would be "rather exploitive to have a child present in the gallery" during such a debate. Santorum relented, bemoaning Boxer's objection as proof that "we have coarsened the comity of this place."

The same has been said of Santorum. In so many words, or facial gestures.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, grimaces. "You couldn't quote what I'd have to say about him," she says.

Boxer (D-Calif.) says he has a knack for "becoming remarkably harsh and personal during debates."

Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey once wondered whether Santorum is "Latin for [anus]." Teresa Heinz Kerry called him "Forrest Gump with an attitude." Howard Dean called him a liar. Then there are the crude Web sites and protesters outside his office, all of which Santorum takes with a measure of pride.

"If you have someone who's really effective on the other side, it's nice to get rid of them if you have the chance," he says. "Particularly if you see them, as a lot of them see me, as a fluke. They say, 'How's a guy like this get elected in Pennsylvania? He's just so lucky.' " ("They" is how Santorum generally refers to Democrats and the media. When channeling the views of "they," Santorum's voice acquires an exaggerated whine.) "They say, 'He's always had a bad opponent or ran in a good year.' They see me as an accidental senator."

Santorum has become, perhaps, the most visible Senate Republican other than Majority Leader Bill Frist. He is the highest-ranking Republican lawmaker to raise questions, albeit faintly, about embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He is a Senate point man for the White House's plan to overhaul Social Security.

He is ensconced in the most divisive issues in America's culture wars: homosexuality, abortion, the role of religion in public life, and most recently, the Terri Schiavo controversy. He has compared homosexuality to incest and called the preservation of traditional marriage "the ultimate homeland security issue." He is a proponent of applying religious values to political institutions, and hosts a course on Catholic doctrine for members of Congress (open to Republicans only) in his hideaway office.

Santorum is running in what could be the most closely-watched Senate campaign in the country next year. He will face, in all likelihood, Democrat Bob Casey, son and namesake of the late Pennsylvania governor. The state, which Al Gore and John Kerry both won, is a plump target for Democrats.

Santorum is clearly working to counter the notion that he is a partisan scourge. He has championed an increase in the minimum wage and more AIDS funding for Africa. He has held press conferences with antagonists such as Sen. John Kerry and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin. He mentions -- in three interviews -- that he has a "rapport" with Boxer. (She calls their relationship "civil.") Ted Kennedy was one of the first people to call him after Gabriel died, he says. He is pals with Joe Lieberman.

But Santorum is at his most animated when discussing conflict, particularly when it involves him. "I had one guy, a Republican, walk up to me once on the floor of the House and get in my face," Santorum says of an incident that occurred when he was a freshman congressman in the early 1990s. "He says to me, 'I'm gonna get you. . . . I'm gonna find out something about you and I'll get you, I'll bring you down if you don't back off this stuff.' " The aggrieved congressman was referring to the House banking scandal in which he was implicated, and which Santorum helped expose. Santorum does not name the former colleague, only that "the guy got hurt badly and faded into oblivion."

As a freshman senator, Santorum hoisted a "Where's Bill?" poster in the Senate chamber -- an egregious informality -- as a way of demanding that President Clinton submit a balanced budget. He tried to oust veteran GOP Sen. Mark Hatfield as chairman of the Appropriations Committee for not supporting a balanced budget amendment. (That inspired Kerrey's foray as a Latin translator.)

Santorum's voice assumes a taunting edge when he discusses how Washington renders people in caricature. The Santorum caricature: A "sort of nasty, mean, ideological kind of guy," he says, shaking his head. "Not liked by his colleagues." He disputes this avidly. And really, if his colleagues -- at least his GOP colleagues -- disliked him so much, would they have elected him chairman of the Republican Conference, the third-ranking job in the Senate? "It's easier for you guys to put someone in a little box and leave him there," Santorum says. ("You guys" is an occasional stand-in for "they.")

But a mention of Gabriel always cools his head of steam. He points to the silver angel pin he wears on his lapel in tribute. Gabriel, Santorum says, "fundamentally affirmed how I see the humanity of the child in a womb." Gabriel reinforced his faith, "an affirmation that what I was doing was right."

He often speaks of the "coincidences" that occurred during Karen's pregnancy with Gabriel. "It struck me that if God is into sending messages, then I was getting some," Santorum says.

He recalls the meeting in which Karen's doctor raised the option of abortion. "We were in one of these little rooms, and it had one of those lights with a timer on it." As soon as the word "abortion" escaped the doctor's mouth, the light in the office went off. "It was eerie," he says, "really eerie."

Sitting in his office, Santorum reads a passage from "Letters to Gabriel" about an episode that occurred during the late-term-abortion debate in 1996. "This is not a blob of tissue," Santorum says, quoting from his own speech. "It's a baby. It's a baby." At which point, the book says, the sound of a baby crying was heard on the Senate floor.

"A coincidence?" Santorum reads, enunciating Karen's words. "Perhaps. A visitor's baby was crying just as the door to the floor of the Senate was opened, or closed. Or maybe it was the cry from the son whose voice we never heard, but whose life has forever changed ours."

The Distinguished Agitator

If Santorum wins reelection next year, he will run for his party's second-ranking Senate job, whip. His name is often raised as a potential GOP presidential candidate, just as it elicits a noticeable wince among Democrats -- much worse than a "Frist," "Lott" or "McConnell" ever does.

"Frist, Lott and McConnell are not as passionate as Rick Santorum," says Sen. Arlen Specter, Santorum's fellow Republican from Pennsylvania. "He takes on more issues that have an emotional component."

A lot of people do, but Santorum creates and attracts more heat. It might be the pride he takes in his agitator's role. Or, simply, that he's an up-and-comer who knows he's an up-and-comer.

"Obviously in politics, you don't get to be senator at age 36 if patience is one of your greater virtues," Santorum says. He is 46 now but looks a decade younger, with the careening manner of a hyperactive boy. Santorum has a packed schedule, which he is happy to advertise. And like many fast-movers, he likes to tell you how little sleep he gets -- rarely more than five hours a night, often less. He gets home around 7:30 or 8 and plays with his six kids, ages 3 to 14, all of whom are home-schooled by Karen (who published another book last year, "Everyday Graces: A Children's Book of Good Manners"). He stays up until 12 or 1, at work on a computer -- with part of the screen showing updated statistics on his fantasy baseball team.

"I got about an hour and a half of sleep last night," Santorum says between Senate votes and full-bodied yawns. He was up until nearly 4 o'clock that morning with his oldest daughter, who had a sinus infection. "And then I was off to play tennis at 5:15."

And now he's waiting for a vote. And has a reception later. And then a fundraiser.


The discussion turns to professional wrestling.

Santorum used to lobby for the World Wrestling Federation while working at a Pittsburgh law firm in the 1980s. "Do you remember the Hart brothers?" he says excitedly. This would be Bret "Hit Man" Hart and Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart.

"Well, the Anvil assaulted a stewardess," Santorum recalls. "Or flight attendant, I should say. On a US Airways flight." His firm represented the Anvil, leading to his gig with the WWF, now called World Wrestling Entertainment.

In conversations, Santorum tends to use out-of-favor terms, then correct himself in a way that calls attention to the infraction ("stewardess, or flight attendant, I should say"). "I'm supposed to go to a dinner at the American Indian museum," he says later. "Sorry, the Native American museum. I always mess that up."

Earlier that day, Santorum was en route to a news conference in his Chevy Trailblazer when Robert Traynham, his communications director, mentioned something about Costco.

"Oh, I'll have to shop at Costco to get big jars of mayonnaise," Santorum says, affecting a loud nasal voice. He is mocking a woman he read about recently who was pregnant with triplets but wanted only one child. She underwent a procedure to abort two of the fetuses. (Santorum recalls, wrongly, that the woman was carrying twins and aborted one fetus).

"She decided to kill one of the children," he says, then corrects himself. "To abort one of them. Because she couldn't handle two. So she goes off on these things about how it would change her life. And one of them was" -- he falls back into the nasally voice -- "Oh, I'd have to shop at Costco and buy big jars of mayonnaise.

"And I'm thinking, 'Hey, I shop at Costco and buy big jars of mayonnaise. It doesn't kill me.'"

Politically Awakened

"Ford was a doofus," Santorum says, "and Carter I had no interest in."

This was his assessment of the 1976 presidential campaign, held when he was a student at Penn State. The son of an Italian immigrant who worked as a clinical psychologist for the Veterans Administration, Santorum spent a relatively apolitical boyhood in the small western Pennsylvania city of Butler. He became more inclined toward politics upon taking college political science classes, one of which required him to work on a campaign. He joined the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican John Heinz, "the only guy I'd heard of."

His teachers recall Santorum as a student of tactics, says Robert O'Connor, a political science professor with whom Santorum took four classes. Santorum once asked him whether it would be better for a politician in Pennsylvania to run as a Democrat or Republican. There would be less competition as a Republican in the post-Watergate years, O'Connor replied.

Santorum worked his way through Dickinson Law School as an aide to state Sen. J. Doyle Corman, a pro-choice Republican. In 1990, he challenged Rep. Doug Walgren, a seven-term Democrat from the Pittsburgh suburbs. He criticized Walgren for, among other things, not spending enough time in his district, and he upset the incumbent by two points.

As a staffer in Harrisburg, Santorum had concerned himself only with his boss's agenda. "I really never took the time to consider what my own positions were," he says. But something took hold when he decided to run for Congress. He listened to tapes produced by GOPAC, a group that trained Republican candidates, and read papers from conservative think tanks.

"There's this gestalt experience you have when you run for office for the first time, " says Corman, now retired. "You realize that your own positions are actually important."

Santorum's conservative awakening coincided with an enhanced devotion to Catholicism. When Santorum, then 30, met Karen Garver, faith was not a big part of either of their lives. "Both of us had sort of wandered off the path," he says.

Before he met Karen (he was recruiting her to work in his law firm), Santorum had had just one significant relationship, and it lasted no more than a year. "I knew this was going to be my first serious relationship," he says of Karen. Their courtship prompted an exhaustive period of soul-searching. "We talked about every aspect of our lives."

"I felt Karen carried the big stick on faith," Corman says, referring to Santorum's stepped-up devotion. (Santorum's office would not make Karen available for this article.)

"I always said that Karen's mom and dad and my mom and dad planted the seed," Santorum says, referring to their Catholic faith. "And it took a long time to germinate. And it was one of those things where maybe we were the sun in each other's lives that caused the seed to germinate.

"Or you could put it in more crude form and say we were the fertilizer in each other's lives."

Santorum was pro-life from the time he first ran for Congress, but it wasn't an issue he was vocal about. Santorum never gave a speech about abortion in the House or Senate until the late-term-abortion debates of 1996 and 1997.

"If you're pro-life, you're automatically branded as a right-wing conservative," he says. "And if you stick your neck out on this issue, you're labeled by definition a right-wing conservative nut case."

Road-Tested Tactics

Santorum is slouched in an SUV passenger seat after a "town meeting" at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., his exhaustion showing plainly. A pelting rain outside could choke frogs. "I feel that, right now, the candle is burned out," he says.

At the town meeting, a Bucknell student asked Santorum about the public "cyber-school" in which his children used to be enrolled. The cyber-school is open to Pennsylvania residents, though Santorum's main residence is in Virginia. The Santorums removed their kids from the program last November when a school board member in Pennsylvania questioned the arrangement.

Santorum explains that he wanted his children to study online with other kids from Pennsylvania while they lived in Virginia. He has heard, and answered, this question before.

But after the meeting, there's an unusual tone of surrender in his voice: "You know, if I could do it all again . . ." Santorum is referring to his children's enrollment in the cyber-school and how difficult it was to quit mid-year. "I look back and I think, maybe I shouldn't have done that." A yawn fills the SUV.

"I'm starving," Santorum announces. "I haven't eaten all day."

After stopping for a chicken salad sub, Santorum is spiritedly discussing his 2006 reelection campaign. He catalogues the races he has won in the past that he wasn't supposed to -- against Walgren in 1990, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford in 1994.

Obscured by Santorum's unfiltered talk are his political skills. He is, by all accounts, as pure a political strategist as there is in the Senate. "He is extremely sharp, extremely bright and he understands the nuances of politics intimately," says senior White House adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. This includes an encyclopedic grasp of Pennsylvania politics. Santorum was deeply involved in the Bush-Cheney campaign in Pennsylvania. He participated in conference calls, recruited staff, reviewed volunteer numbers and talked regularly to Rove.

"One of the reasons they like each other," Rove says of President Bush and Santorum, "is that they're both, at heart, an odd combination of idealist and realist."

Bob Kerrey says he has grown to like Santorum. "He tends to be a lot more off-putting when you see him speak in public than when you work with him quietly," Kerrey says. He calls Santorum "a good human being."

But Santorum remains afflicted with the politically dicey tendency of saying what's actually on his mind. He has a gift for getting attention, for better or for worse. The most egregious example of "for worse" occurred two years ago, in remarks to the Associated Press about a challenge to the constitutionality of Texas's sodomy law, a matter before the Supreme Court. According to the AP, Santorum said that if the court allows gay sex at home, "you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

Santorum disputed the AP's account, calling it "misleading." The AP in turn released a transcript of the entire interview, which yielded this: "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality," Santorum said. "That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

The interview became instant political legend, known to many on the Hill as Santorum's "man-on-dog" interview.

Grace Under Fire

"Have you seen some of these hate Web sites, Senator? Are you aware of what people say about you?"

The broadcaster is finishing an interview with Santorum at Newsradio 1070, WKOK in Sunbury, Pa.

"Yes," Santorum says, adding that he doesn't look at the Web sites, some of which include details about a sex columnist's campaign to make his name a synonym for something that cannot be printed in this newspaper. "When you stick your head out of the foxhole people shoot at you. I've stuck my head out of a foxhole."

Back in the safety of his Dirksen office, Santorum is prone to sentimentality, especially after long days, which (he often reminds you) they all are.

He is reflecting on the pope's funeral, which he attended with Karen as part of a congressional delegation. He found himself looking around St. Peter's Basilica at all the princes and presidents and dignitaries surrounding him. He was seated next to Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." "It was one of those moments where you don't see yourself as the person you are," Santorum says, "but as the kid that you know inside you.

"It's part of the awe of this job that I do," he says. "Every day. You're making these decisions and . . . " He fights for the right words. "It's a great -- "

"Is it humbling, Senator?" Robert Traynham, his communications aide, interjects.

"Yes, it's very humbling!"

"And it's uniquely American, isn't it, Senator?" prompts Traynham.

"Oh, absolutely."

And Santorum is launched: About how, at the funeral, he turned around and made eye contact with Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, his colleague and persistent rival, but who on this day he describes simply as "this scrappy woman from inner-city Baltimore."

"And then there's this kid," he says, "who is me."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company