In the Arena

The Passion of Rick Santorum

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In my print column this week, which can be found here if you’re a TIME subscriber, I write about Rick Santorum, a complicated man who has actually lived his faith.

Santorum was never popular among his congressional colleagues. He was considered brash, intemperate, intense and puerile — and more, the sort of guy you made fun of. The classic line, by one of his Senate colleagues, was “Santorum is Latin for [posterior orifice].” And he has remained intermittently obnoxious on the stump. He has said brutal things about homosexuality. He will, on occasion, get overly exercised about the depredations of the welfare state and its effect on the morality of the poor. His foreign policy is simplistic and dangerous; he’s the only candidate to have called for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But I got to know another side of Santorum 15 years ago, when I had a series of conversations with the then Senator and his wife Karen about the death of their son Gabriel in childbirth. The baby had a serious birth defect: a malfunctioning kidney that was addressed through fetal micro-surgery. But the operation caused a uterine infection, which the doctors said could endanger Karen’s life if she didn’t have the child aborted. Karen refused the procedure — she later told me she wasn’t thinking clearly — and Santorum abided by her wishes; her life was saved when she miscarried. The Santorums brought the dead baby home overnight so their other children could see that it was “a perfect, tiny little baby,” Santorum told me. In a subsequent pregnancy, Karen gave birth to a daughter with a severe birth defect, who is now 3 years old. On caucus night, six Santorum children wore buttons with a picture of their beloved sister. They are a remarkable family. And whatever you think of Santorum’s unyielding views on social issues like abortion, this is one politician who walks his talk, under the most trying circumstances.

(MORE: Santorum’s Sweater Vests, The Unsung Heroes of His Campaign)

Mitt Romney remains the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. But Santorum’s brand of blue collar populism may force a valuable debate on economic issues. Santorum opposed the Wall Street bailout, and he favors eliminating the corporate tax on manufacturing, in the hope that it will create some factory jobs. His dead-heat tie in Iowa was the product of hard work, the sort of retail politics that won’t be as important as a turbocharged primary schedule begins to roll. But he has earned some respect for campaigning the old-fashioned way in Iowa — and, more important, for conducting a campaign, based on the central importance of strong families, that actually reflects the way he has lived his life.

(MORE: See Swampland’s coverage of the 2012 election.)

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