Associated Press photo by Eric Gay

Tightrope walker

Politics | Rick Santorum says faith-aided growth is moving him from angry U.S. senator to authentic presidential candidate

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

WASHINGTON-Rick Santorum is "more like me" than Mitt Romney is, Ohio voters are telling reporters. The former senator is "basically down to earth," they say. But Santorum says that to maintain that connection he needs to take chances: "The best way for me to do that is to get out there on a tightrope without a net and let folks see what we are really all about."

That's what the former senator from Pennsylvania told me during a Feb. 20 interview when I asked him what underlies his current appeal. "People are looking for someone who is authentic. Not necessarily people agreeing with everything I say, but they know where I am going to be. They know I believe what I am saying. I'm not saying it because it's popular today ... and that resonates with folks."

Santorum was taking media heat in the second half of February for plain-spoken comments he's made-some during this campaign, some years ago-about contraception, homosexuality, Satan, schooling, traditional marriage, and much beside. He's walking the tightrope. But what's been missing from the candidate largely known for his sleeveless sweater vests is the attitude that once gave him the nickname Senator Slash.

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Santorum's transformation from a firebrand Senator to a more thoughtful but still "authentic" presidential candidate apparently started with a pruning by both personal and professional losses. "Spiritual maturity takes place when someone has to experience more dependency on God rather than the sort of self-sufficiency that can be felt when you're on top of the world (as a) new freshmen senator," said Mark Rodgers, Santorum's former chief of staff.

The Senator Slash moniker originated soon after a 36-year-old Santorum became the Senate's youngest member in 1995, but his fighting nature wasn't new: High-school classmates nicknamed him "Rooster," and as a young Pittsburgh lawyer Santorum lobbied for the World Wrestling Federation. As a two-term congressman, Santorum helped force the release of the names of lawmakers who had bounced checks at the House of Representatives bank.

Less than two months after joining the Senate, Santorum took on a senior member of his own party, Mark Hatfield, who chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee. When Hatfield cast the decisive vote against a balanced budget constitutional amendment, Santorum pushed to strip Hatfield of his committee chairmanship.

The head of the committee responsible for doling out federal money to Pennsylvania wasn't Santorum's only target. He regularly entered the decorum-ruled Senate floor with a provocative chart that read, "Where's Bill?" He referred to then-President Bill Clinton as "that guy" during speeches attacking Clinton's budget policies.

Santorum's rhetoric outraged liberals and guardians of Senate tradition. "It's about time the freshmen members of this body come into it with a bit of humbleness," protested Sen. James Exon, D-Neb. Santorum responded with a complaint about the "aristocratic" Senate "with all this grandeur."

"They need someone who is going to try and rock the boat around here a little bit," Santorum told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Santorum's in-your-face ways yielded results: He took the Republican lead in the Senate during the welfare reform effort, often managing floor debates against veteran liberal Ted Kennedy. Santorum also became the third-ranking Republican in Senate leadership. Today, nearly 20 years older, he admits he didn't defend his views in the best way.

"I was a young hard charger, frustrated like a lot of folks who have an idealism about what American politics should be," Santorum told me. "That we should talk about high and lofty things. And when you come to Washington, D.C., and find out that isn't really the case, I think it rubbed me the wrong way and probably caused me to say some things and do some things that were more intemperate. That's unfortunate."

Something else was happening to Santorum back in the mid-1990s, and it occurred away from the C-SPAN cameras. Santorum says he went to the Senate and found God: "I had certainly been a Christian ... but it really wasn't the center part of my life. I mean that personal relationship and that center focus of what is the driver in your life every day and in every aspect of your life."

This started to change when Santorum began to attend a Senate Bible study led by then-Senate chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie and to go to a church in northern Virginia with his wife, Karen.

He said he heard the gospel "like I had never heard it before. That combination for both Karen and me in our personal lives and for me in my professional life was just exactly what I needed at the time to grow in my faith."


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