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Daughter’s illness is quandary for Santorum

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, campaigning under the banner “faith, family and freedom,” has made his life story central to his political identity. He often mentions his seven kids — one of whom is gravely ill — a son who died hours after birth, and his wife of two decades as proof that he not only preaches conservative values but lives by them in his daily life.

But as his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who has a rare and fatal genetic disorder, struggled with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia in recent days, his family life collided with his political schedule, forcing him to cancel several events here. And in church pews, medical circles and among some conservatives, Santorum’s decision to remain a candidate, even as his prospects dim and his daughter battles a fatal illness, has sparked conversation about whether he should remain in the race.

Douglas Pigg, associate pastor of church administration at First Baptist Church in Naples, where Santorum appeared last week, said it is a deeply personal decision.

“Being a father and having three sons of my own, if I had one that was in critical care, I would stay there, but there is no way for me to impose what I would do on Santorum,” Pigg said. “I would support any man that would have a child in his position to go back and take care of it.”

Short on cash and without a clear path to the nomination, the former senator from Pennsylvania has vowed to stay in the presidential contest “for the long haul.” He called supporters from the hospital as Bella’s condition improved and laid out a strategy for a national campaign beyond Tuesday’s Florida primary, which he has all but conceded.

Santorum, who until this weekend had not been to his home since Christmas, has said his duty as a father is to run for office and try to make the nation better.

“I don’t know whether her life is going to be measured — it’s always been measured — in days and weeks,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post in November. “Yet here I am . . . because I feel like I wouldn’t be a good dad if I wasn’t out here fighting for a country that would see the dignity in her and every other child.” 

Bella suffers from Trisomy 18, a chromosome abnormality that affects development of the brain, heart and other organs. Doctors gave her just days to live when she was born. According to Santorum, they urged the family to forgo intense medical treatment and prepare for their daughter to die, a story that has moved many voters and has particularly resonated with conservatives.

David Limbaugh, the brother of the popular radio talk show host, endorsed Santorum on Monday. Glenn Beck, who also has a special-needs child, cast Santorum as a defender of life, as did conservative pundit and author Michelle Malkin, who also offered an endorsement.

“Santorum is an eloquent spokesperson for the culture of life. He has been savaged and ridiculed by leftist elites for upholding traditional family values — not just in word, but in deed,” Malkin wrote on her Web site, linking to a previous post about Bella’s illness.

Santorum aides said they are not hearing calls that he should drop out.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook with conservatives telling us that they know his daughter is sick but that they want him in the race,” said John Brabender, a Santorum aide. “There has never been a call to us to get out of the race. We are picking up endorsements every day, and we believe that we are going to be able to create a unity coalition who respect Rick Santorum for talking and living as a conservative.”

Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant, said some voters may see hypocrisy in Santorum’s decision to stay on the trail, while the tragedy of his daughter may, for others, personalize the candidate.

“I do think there are people who will say this is an example of courage and bravery, of doing what he has to do to be with his family, but also doing what he has to do for the rest of us, for the country. But I think those are already believers,” Griffin said.

“I’d only say that, for me, I’d want my butt off the campaign trail and wouldn’t be calling in to any tea partyer or anywhere else. The value of family that is so important in our party . . . I would not be surprised if some voters did not find some hypocrisy in this.”

After canceling a handful of Florida events, Santorum returned to the stump Monday afternoon, appearing in Missouri and Minnesota, two states where aides say he can pick up delegates and be competitive. He will spend Tuesday night at a rally in Nevada as votes are tallied in Florida.

Santorum’s candidacy has drawn attention to Trisomy 18, a little-known disease.

“There’s no denying that it’s raised the profile and helped raise awareness of this condition that impacts so many parents around the world,” said Victoria Miller, president and founder of the Virginia-based Trisomy 18 Foundation. “To be able to see a family, a prominent family in the media, who talks positively about their child and doesn’t hide them, has pictures of them,” has made the disease “less of a hidden issue.”

Speaking on CNN, Santorum said that Bella had a touch-and-go weekend but has turned the corner.

“She went through a very, very tough time,” he said. “She is doing much better, and we feel things are good and that I can get back out on the road and that Karen and the kids can now take it from here.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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