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Tightrope walker

"Tightrope walker" Continued...

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

Santorum said he began to believe God had a purpose for him to be in the Senate. He found that reason in the battle over legislation to ban partial-birth abortion. Santorum led the Senate floor debates in unsuccessful attempts to override Clinton's 1995 and 1997 vetoes of the measure. The bill banning partial-birth abortions became law under President George W. Bush in 2003.

In the midst of the partial-birth abortion debates, the sanctity of human life became personal for Santorum. His infant son, Gabriel, was born prematurely in 1996 and died within a couple of hours. Santorum tried to pray for understanding. "I was angry," he told an Iowa audience last year. "I had committed myself to the Lord. I was doing the brave and heroic thing of standing up for life, risking my political career in Pennsylvania, and this was my answer: You take my son."

That self-confessed anger showed up in public appearances, others noticed. Michael Geer, president of Pennsylvania Family Council, said Santorum knew he had a reputation for being arrogant, and "I've witnessed that myself at times and seen people not react well to it."

Santorum won reelection in 2000 but lost by 18 points in 2006, the biggest loss ever for an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican senator. Democrats tied him to an unpopular George W. Bush and ran against him State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the son of popular former governor Robert Casey Sr. Casey campaigned as a pro-life candidate, nullifying Santorum's social issue edge.

"Losing wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to me," Santorum told me, because it forced him to "look at myself. I don't think I was as nice of a person as I could have been or as kind to others as I should have been. I think there was a lot of focus on that I was doing important things and just was moving and rushing. I am not going to get in that trap again."

Geer of the Pennsylvania Family Council agrees: "His defeat that year was something that really taught him some lessons and really humbled him in a way that I think makes him a much better candidate now in terms of how to deal with other people."

In 2008 Santorum confronted another personal challenge that both softened him and reaffirmed his pro-life stance. When Karen at age 48 became pregnant with their eighth child, doctors recommended an abortion after a sonogram revealed that the baby had a rare genetic disorder that often proves fatal. But the Santorums rejected the idea, and Karen gave birth to Isabella in 2008.

Now 3 years old, Bella has defied the odds. "What we've gone through here with our little girl Bella has ... gentled my condition a little bit," said Santorum, who temporarily left the campaign trail in late January when a sick Bella had to be hospitalized: "When she gets just a cold that's a life-threatening occurrence, and it's very stressful. That definitely has had an impact on how I see my professional career, period. It just creates a real heart for those on the margins of society at least as society sees them on the margins of society."

Now that Santorum has a spot on the race's center stage, he is facing intensifying scrutiny about both his past and his beliefs: Accepts too many earmarks. Pushes for subsidies for dairy farmers. Lacks executive experience. News stories are spotlighting Santorum's criticism of Roe v. Wade and his defense of stay-at-home moms in his 2005 book, It Takes a Family.

Another firestorm erupted over Santorum's Feb. 18 comments that President Barack Obama's goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions is "not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." Democrats accused Santorum of attacking Obama's faith. Santorum responded that he was criticizing an environmentalist worldview that elevates the Earth above man.

The scrutiny of Santorum will increase as voters in 10 states head to the polls for Super Tuesday on March 6. I asked Santorum if he would resurrect his Senator Slash image to survive: "I am not going to ignore when someone says some things that are completely out of line," he said. "We are not going to be a punching bag. We are gong to stand up and defend our record."

That may not be a direct answer to the question, but sometimes pictures speak louder than words. The Santorum campaign uploaded an ad to YouTube on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day no less, in which a Romney look-alike carrying a mud-spewing machine gun stalks a cardboard cut-out of Santorum.

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