“His message had less to do with cultural conservatism than it had to do economic opportunity and government reform,” English recalled. “In his first race, he was getting union endorsements.”
But over the course of his congressional career, first in the House and then in the Senate, Santorum slowly adopted more uncompromising stands on the most divisive issues, from gay marriage to abortion rights to the role of religion in government. And those are the issues that came to define his presidential campaign.
Some who knew Santorum saw a shrewd political calculation in his evolution, aimed at currying favor with the evangelical and religious wing of the Republican Party. Friends and supporters counter that life experiences—many of them rooted in raising his family of seven children with Karen—have naturally made him the politician he is today.
Particularly influential was the loss of their son, Gabriel, in 1996. Born prematurely, he died two hours after birth, at the same time that the debate over partial-birth abortion was raging in the Senate. Santorum became one of the most passionate and vocal opponents of the procedure.
“It makes you stronger in your faith and brings you closer together when you have a tragedy like that,” Dan Santorum said. “It gives you just a stronger will.”
Jeff Coleman, who worked briefly in Santorum’s congressional office and remains an ally, said it was always clear that his marriage and his faith were his first priorities. That meant working his schedule around around Sunday Mass and home-schooling sessions, Coleman said, and taking precautions to protect his marriage. For example, Santorum would not meet behind closed doors with a female staff member alone. “It’s obvious that their faith has deepened together tremendously and out of that faith has come this joint sense of mission and responsibility,” Coleman said.
Many point out, too, that if Santorum was looking to do the politically expedient thing, he would avoid some of the social issues that tended to knock him off message at various points in the campaign and in his career. “Sometimes there would be things he would say that you kind of cringe at, and I know staff would say ‘Jesus, Rick!’ ” Green said. “But that’s him, and you’re not going to change him, and you kind of wish sometimes it was massaged a little bit.”
The sense of righteous purpose that Rick and Karen Santorum infuse into their politics is what makes them attractive to social conservatives—and completely unpalatable to other voters.
“The best way to put it in terms of Rick and Karen’s marriage, it is what has helped him be the authentic candidate and politician that he is,” said Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, who has known Santorum since shortly after he was elected to Congress. “He is who he says he is.”