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Rick Santorum known for outrunning expectations

Santorum proudly unrelenting

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who met voters at an Amherst, N.H., grocery store yesterday, is known as a tireless campaigner. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who met voters at an Amherst, N.H., grocery store yesterday, is known as a tireless campaigner. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti and Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / January 8, 2012
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When federal officials threatened to shutter a Western Pennsylvania iron-ore plant over smog violations in 1991, labor leader Jerry Strelick called elected officials in a panic. More than 1,500 jobs were at stake in a region where once mighty steel mills stood dormant in weed-choked lots.

Strelick, then a United Steelworkers of America local president, heard nothing for three days. Exasperated, he flipped open a phone directory and called Rick Santorum, a newly elected Republican congressman.

Within the hour, Santorum called. The next day, Santorum stood outside the plant greeting steelworkers and pledging to fight for their jobs in Washington.

“If it wasn’t for him, that plant wouldn’t be here right now,’’ Strelick said. “That’s the truth.’’

Not everyone agrees with Strelick’s portrait of Santorum as the hero of the hour. But Santorum, it can be fairly be said, shows up.

He is nothing if not relentless. Political friends and foes alike say Santorum’s success over the years in elections he had no business winning owes much to his turbo-charged style of campaigning. In Iowa, where he scored an upset near-victory last week in the caucuses, he visited the state’s 99 counties in a Dodge pickup and often accompanied by one of his seven children; his wife and family temporarily relocated to the state during the campaign.

The tenacity extends to Santorum’s social conservatism, driven by a devout Roman Catholic faith that family and friends say deepened with the death of a newborn child and the genetic illness of another. Santorum defends his anti-abortion-rights, anti-gun-control, antihomosexuality stances with a certitude that has won him a devoted following, but has also struck many, even those inclined to his positions, as overboard, and sometimes borderline bizarre.

There was his claim that the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal erupted in Boston because of the city’s “academic, political and cultural liberalism’’ and his pointed exchange over limits on abortion with Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, in which he asked whether a fetus would be considered a baby if one foot, or even one toe, was still inside the womb.

Santorum is also an unvarnished critic of homosexuality - or, more precisely, homosexual sex. His position echoes Catholic church teachings but his rhetoric on the subject has been, at times, so scathing that when he was misquoted as comparing gay sexuality to “man on dog’’ bestiality it was widely taken as something he might well have said. The controversy helped shape Santorum’s image as a figure out of step with Pennsylvania’s more moderate voters.

In 2006, at the height of his power, when he was poised after two terms to become Republican whip, the second-ranking post in the Senate, voters booted Santorum from office with an ignominious 17 point loss.

“He said it was God’s plan,’’ said his younger brother, Dan Santorum, chief executive for the Professional Tennis Registry.

Though suddenly out of office, Santorum remained a fixture on the Washington scene with regular appearances on Fox News. He also earned lucrative consulting and speaking fees. He joined the board of Universal Health Services, a health care management company, and became a consultant to a Pennsylvania gas and coal producer and for a lobbying firm.

But the defeat follows him: As he tries to make his case to voters in New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary that he would be the most widely electable Republican nominee, it stands as a reminder that not so long ago his own constituents loudly disagreed.

When Santorum set out on his first improbable quest for a US House seat, the never-elected 32-year-old had a compelling family story of immigrant grit and blue collar roots.

His father, Aldo, had emigrated from Italy as a boy, arriving in New York in 1930 with his family on the SS Providence, according to Ancestry.com. The Santorums - whose name derives from a Latin word meaning “of the saints’’ - settled in western Pennsylvania where Santorum’s grandfather worked in coal mines until he was 70. Aldo Santorum, who died a year ago, became a psychologist for the Veterans Administration. His mother Catherine, who is 93, was a nurse for the VA and the family lived on the grounds of a VA hospital near Pittsburgh for much of Santorum’s childhood.

The family attended church regularly, often at a nondenominational chapel on the grounds of the hospital to which Rick Santorum would wheel patients for services and return them to their rooms before breakfast.

Politics rarely came up in the Santorum household. He and his brother talked sports and his parents’ political affiliations remain a mystery to this day, Dan Santorum said.

By college, Rick Santorum’s own leanings were clear. At Penn State, he majored in political science and revived the College Republicans organization on campus. After graduation and during law school, he served as an aide for a moderate Republican state senator, fielding press calls about all manner of subjects.

In 1990, Santorum saw an opening for his own electoral ambitions in western Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district. It was an unlikely target: Held by a seven-term incumbent Democrat, the district was highly unionized and blue collar with 71 percent Democratic voter registration.

But job losses had been brutal - including thousands in the steel industry. Discontent ran deep and Santorum was there to listen. George T. Weber, Jr., general manager of the Clairton plant, the nation’s largest coke producer, and a Democrat, recalled Santorum as a smart and well-spoken candidate. He was so impressed, he arranged for steel workers to meet with him on their lunch breaks.

Santorum the campaigner seemed to be everywhere. Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College, recalled Santorum meeting with students at the University of Pittsburgh and fluidly fielding questions about immigration, the Middle East and welfare reform. “He was ready. He had an answer for everything,’’ Kengor said.

Santorum mobilized an army of volunteers, many of them college students. They made phone calls and knocked on doors, often leaving behind a brochure suggesting that Santorum’s opponent, Doug Walgren, was under investigation, Walgren said. Santorum ran television ads accusing Walgren of living in northern Virginia and rarely making his way back to the district.

Walgren, in an interview, said the accusations were not true - that he was not under investigation and that he had a home in Virginia because he had young children at the time but that he regularly returned to the district. (The same argument, Walgren noted, would be made against Santorum by his Democratic opponent in 2006, when he too maintained homes in both Virginia and Pennsylvania.) Santorum won the seat by two percentage points.

“When anybody loses a campaign there are a lot of hard feelings. I would chalk anything Doug Walgren is saying to sour grapes more than anything,’’ said John Brabender, a long-time Santorum advisor.

Santorum quickly gained attention as one of the “Gang of Seven,’’ young Republican lawmakers who exposed the House banking scandal and subscribed to the “Contract with America’’ insurrection led by Newt Gingrich. In 1994, riding a wave of Republican popularity, he won election to the Senate, upsetting another Democratic incumbent, Harris Wofford.

Two years later, his family suffered tragedy. His wife, Karen, delivered a premature baby, named Gabriel, who lived just two hours. According to a book she wrote about the death, the couple slept with the baby’s body that night and the next day took him home, where his siblings held him.

In the Senate, Santorum’s opposition to abortion became even more outspoken. He gained a reputation as sharp-elbowed and brash, defying Senate protocol with refusals to yield the floor and pointed exchanges with other members.

Santorum helped pass a ban on partial birth abortions, engaging in the much-discussed tussle with Boxer. He also worked to pass President George W. Bush’s initiative enabling religious groups to win federal grants. He vehemently pushed for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

His national profile rose; he was a darling of the religious right and the nemesis of the left.

Within Pennsylvania, change was stirring. His old backers were wary of his increasingly strident views and a powerful opponent jumped into the fray - Bob Casey Jr., the antiabortion-rights son of the popular former governor.

Santorum came under scrutiny for his support of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, and for disclosures that he had received about $73,000 from a Pennsylvania school district to enroll his children in “cyber school’’ - an online education program - while they principally lived the family residence in Virginia.

After the defeat, Santorum was unbowed, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that if he had to do it all again, he would push the same agenda.

“[I] run with my convictions rather than run away from them, even if they were unpopular and even though they may have cost me my seat,’’ he said, “. . . because that is how important I believe that they were and still are.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com.

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