Sanctimonious or Sincere? Santorum Evoked Strong Feelings in Congress

John Aloysius Farrell

From odious sanctimony to laudable sincerity, Rick Santorum rarely failed to evoke strong characterizations in his 16 years on Capitol Hill.

Before losing his Senate seat in a landslide to Robert Casey of Pennsylvania in 2006, Santorum was a champion for social conservatives, striking tough poses on movement issues like abortion and gay rights.

His staunch, strident stance played well with evangelical voters in Iowa, but could be problematic as the nominating process shifts to other states with fewer evangelicals, more independents, and higher unemployment rates. Voters considering electability may also question whether he has broad enough appeal to win a general election.

Yet the same strong Catholic faith that spurred Santorum to so vigorously promote “family values” (and once placed him on a Time magazine list of the 25 most influential American evangelicals) has also revealed itself in his concern for the hard-pressed low-income and working-class families of his Rust Belt state.

Santorum’s pugnacity was tempered by time and a role in the Senate Republican leadership during the presidency of George W. Bush, when the senator supported faith-based government programs and tax breaks for the poor and middle class. He voted, as well, for the hugely expensive and unpaid-for addition of prescription-drug coverage to Medicare, and for pork-laden bills that brought federal relief to Pennsylvania.

“He voted for the 2005 highway bill that included thousands of wasteful earmarks, including the Bridge to Nowhere,” the conservative Club for Growth griped in a campaign white paper, though it acknowledged that Santorum’s voting record was generally to the right of the GOP senators with whom he served in Congress.

“Santorum has a set of fixed principles, many of them imbued by his Catholicism,” says Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “Some people say he is brash, or arrogant. But he is certainly authentic. He is the real deal."

Madonna added: “I have known him for a long time. He is a driven man. He is very difficult when it comes to compromising.”

Santorum arrived in Congress in 1990 at the age of 32 -- a conservative upstart who had challenged and beaten a seven-term Democratic congressman from western Pennsylvania.

He enlisted in the “Gang of Seven,” a group of young firebrands (including, among others, the current speaker, John Boehner) who exploited operational defects in the House bank and post office to insinuate Democratic corruption.

The scandals helped propel Republicans to their historic takeover of the House in 1994, but the restive and ambitious Santorum was not among them. He had moved on, challenging Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford in that fall’s election and claiming a Senate seat.

(RELATED: Santorum's Conservative Vote Rankings—Chart)

In his early years in the chamber, Santorum fought vigorously, and ultimately successfully, for a measure to ban so-called "partial birth" abortions. He voted against the handgun controls in the Brady bill, and opposed a ban on assault weapons.

But Santorum is more than a caricature. He helped manage welfare-reform legislation, a landmark bill that became the most notable legacy of President Clinton’s fractious relationship with congressional Republicans.

(RELATED: Santorum's Tax Policies Good for Families, Bad for Poor)

In the Bush years, Santorum supported the Republican president. He voted for the Bush tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind education overhaul, supported the war in Iraq and a muscular U.S. stance toward Iran, pushed privatization of Social Security, and maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage. Indeed, Santorum’s comments on gay sex, associating it with incest and bestiality, won him special loathing from liberals.

So did the senator’s intercession in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose removal from life-sustaining medical aid became a celebrated cause for right-to-life advocates. Santorum told The New York Times that he had threatened GOP leaders to tie the Senate in knots if they did not act to keep Schiavo alive.

Santorum’s campaign website boasts that he opposed gay marriage “even though he knew he would be labeled a bigot or worse by members of the liberal elite” and that his support for the Iraq war contributed to his defeat in 2006 when he was “ridiculed by many in the mainstream media as a Chicken Little.”

“Rick makes it clear and obvious what drives him: family, faith, and freedom,” says Pennsylvania lawyer Charles Artz, a longtime friend. “He willingly got crushed in the last Senate election because he refused to compromise his values. He is a statesman. This country sorely needs a statesman. Never mistake conviction for sanctimony.”

“He is a very persistent soul, as people have found out in Iowa,” said Barry Lynn, a critic who heads the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “He takes positions that are very stark, easy to understand … and he doesn’t give up. He simply doesn’t go away.”

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CBS News/National Journal embed Naureen Khan tweets from Iowa on Sunday: "@naureen_cbsNJ: Coffeeshop in Sioux City crammed with ppl to see Santorum"

PHOTO: Naureen Khan via Twitter

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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, talk during a hunt at Doc's Hunt Club in Adel, Iowa, Monday, Dec. 26, 2011.

PHOTO: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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