For Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, prayer is as much a part of his day as shaking hands. A devout Catholic, Santorum and wife Karen leaned on their faith to weather the death of an infant son in 1996, and they turn to it daily for strength to care for their youngest child, Bella, 3, born with Edwards syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that claims 99 percent of victims by age 10. "It helps us get through," says Karen during a break from campaigning in Derry, N.H. She recently made buttons with Bella's picture for the kids to wear at events. "We lean on a lot of Bible passages, depending on the occasion," adds the former senator. A favorite scripture? Ephesians 6:10-12: "Put on the whole armor of God."
He could use it. Not popular enough in Pennsylvania to carry a third Senate term, holding far-right positions like the desire to outlaw abortion even in instances of rape or incest, and lacking the name recognition of many of his Republican competitors, sometimes it seemed all Santorum had was a prayer. But then, a small boost: He grazed front-runner Mitt Romney's lead in Iowa by a narrow eight votes. "We felt joy," says Santorum, 53. And that was all he needed (well, that and the $2 million his campaign quickly raised after Iowa) to keep going-at least through the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
As unlikely as his come from behind may have seemed, those who know Santorum aren't totally surprised. The son of an Italian immigrant psychologist and a mother who was a nurse at the Butler, Pa., VA hospital, he declared at age 14 he would someday be governor of Pennsylvania. Later, as a member of the College Republicans at Penn State, "he filled the room," recalls friend Charlie Gerow. "You knew some of those guys would make it to office someday-he was one of them."
After marrying Karen, a former NICU nurse whom he met when she was in law school (and he was an associate), Santorum won a congressional seat in 1990. But his victories took a toll on the young family. Just after his 1994 Senate win, when they had three kids (they now have seven), Santorum was at home helping Karen sift through winter clothes when he suffered "a gut-punch moment," he says. Karen held up a tiny onesie and "said, 'Oh, I remember this sleeper; John wore this every night to bed,'" he recalls. "I said, 'I've never seen it before.' That was when I thought, I've got to do better at this."
He became one of the few congressmen to spend most nights at home. "The second he walks through the door, he's a husband and father," says Karen, who homeschools their children until high school. "Helping with the cooking, cleaning, playing with the kids." Asked about his kitchen skills, he replies modestly, "I like to make toasted sandwiches."
But on the job, he wasn't such a softy. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) recently called Santorum "one of the meanest people in terms of public policy I've encountered," referring to his position against marriage equality. "I see Rick as a passionate person in sync with his church," says former staffer Robert Traynham, who is gay. "My partner and I have never heard him say anything disparaging." But when Santorum showed compassion on social issues-like backing funding to fight AIDS in Africa, earning praise from U2's Bono-he still remained blunt. Even old pal Gerow, now a political strategist, admits, "He's going to have to allay fears he's not too polarizing."
He may yet embrace that because he's found he likes being at, or at least near, the front of the pack. "For a long time, we weren't in the race," Santorum says of the dark ages before Iowa. When the votes were tallied, "Peter, our sort of quiet 12-year-old, was jumping up and down, saying, 'This is exciting!' It was exciting."
- Sandra Sobieraj Westfall/Manchester,
- Alicia Dennis/Austin.