Mister Right; Rick Santorum: The No. 3 Man in the Senate Leadership Is Hard at Work Spreading the GOP Gospel. Will His Crusades Take Him All the Way to the White House?

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman (Graphic by Andrew Romano)

For most denizens of Washington, politics is a living, perhaps a way of life. For Rick Santorum, it is a bruising crusade. As a student in the dissolute 1970s, he smoked his share of pot at Penn State and was, by his own account, somewhat casual about his Roman Catholic faith. Now, still boyish at 46, he is a devout and devoted family man--father to six home-schooled children--and a senator determined to champion the church's traditional moral principles in the public square. In the reception area of his office, there's a predictably appropriate portrait of Pennsylvania's Ben Franklin, bibulous deist. But the one on the wall in the sanctum of Santorum is of Thomas More, sainted for losing his life in defense of Rome's control of English Christendom. "That picture's up there for a reason," Santorum said in an interview. "There was a guy who was willing to stand up for things that were not particularly popular, and he paid the price for it."

Thus far, however, Santorum's story is the opposite of More's: professions of belief have been his ticket to the top. He's become one of the shrewdest players in the front ranks of the faith-based Republican Party George W. Bush and Karl Rove have erected. As the third-ranking Republican in a majority soon to expand to 55 members, Santorum is close to the White House, operates one of the largest personal campaign funds and is a point man on hot-button issues ranging from gay marriage to Social Security. Used to being the youngest or the first, Santorum won a seat in the U.S. House at 32 (with hundreds of anti-abortion activists serving as his shock troops) and one in the Senate at 36. His combatively devout approach is one Republicans are hoping will expand their control in the decade ahead by winning over traditional Catholics in Great Lakes states and Hispanic voters everywhere. It's an approach Santorum has told friends he thinks can propel him to the presidency someday.

Perhaps, but it may not be easy to persuade the GOP, let alone the country, to accept the full Santorum canon. Evolution, he says, should be taught in public schools, but only as a still-controversial scientific theory that "has holes." There is no constitutionally based right to privacy, he says, arguing that it is a phony legal concoction foisted on the country by liberal judges. As it happens, the 1965 case which declared the existence of privacy rights legitimized contraception. He calls that case, and others that followed it, a "massive usurpation of power by the judiciary." "Would I ban contraception in the states as a state legislator? No way. Would I do it as a federal official? No way." Even so, he said, each state should be free to legislate the matter on its own. If that means the banning of contraception (or, presumably, adultery or premarital sex), then so be it. "It should be the same with sodomy laws," he said. "Texas should have had the right. People should have had the right."

Santorum's high regard for states' rights doesn't extend to the question of who can marry legally. …