By Martha T. Moore, Susan Davis, Fredreka Schouten and Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
BEDFORD, N.H.-It was past midnight Wednesday morning when Rick Santorum thanked Iowans for catapulting him into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates. First, though, he singled out two figures for higher praise.
One was his wife, Karen, mother of the couple's seven children.
The other was God.
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It was a fitting way to kick off the roller-coaster ride that Santorum's life is about to become. Where it ends - 15 minutes of fame? Republican nominee? President? - is anyone's guess. But along the way, the son of an Italian immigrant and grandson of a coal miner will be stressing family and faith foremost.
"For Republicans who want to a conservative candidate, he's the alternative to Mitt Romney. You'll see more and more people coalescing around him."
Santorum, who came out of sixth place in Iowa less than two weeks ago to finish in a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney, is not a one-dimensional candidate. Political junkies whose TV screens were wide enough to find him on the far right (politically) or far left (spatially) at every GOP debate heard a former Pennsylvania senator and congressman well-versed on topics ranging from immigration to Iran.
His campaign, however, has focused largely on social issues, based on Santorum's belief that family and faith are the building blocks for everything else. He often mentions "our special child," the couple's 3-year-old daughter Bella, born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18, as well as their stillborn son Gabriel, brought home from the hospital in 1996 so his siblings could meet him.
It's a message that inspires and alienates Americans on opposite sides of some of the nation's most explosive social issues: Abortion. Disability. Gay marriage. Don't ask, don't tell.
And it's a message from which Santorum, 53, won't back down - not even in a debate when he was confronted by a gay soldier serving overseas who had "come out" following President Obama's decision to end the controversial military policy that had kept gay and lesbian troops in the closet. Santorum wants the policy reinstated.
"He understands the importance of family as the foundation of a strong society," his wife said Tuesday. "You know, you have to have strong families to have a strong country."
Santorum has spent hours on the campaign trail this year telling his personal story - one he hopes will catch on with blue-collar Republicans and so-called "Reagan Democrats" as well as conservatives.
"I'm a first-generation American. I didn't go to an Ivy League school; I went to Penn State. I lived in public housing, on an Army post," he said during an interview with USA TODAY in Red Oak, Iowa, late last year, sipping decaffeinated coffee because caffeine makes his heart flutter.
Upon arrival here Wednesday afternoon, Santorum was met with widespread skepticism about his ability to withstand scrutiny and compete with the more tested Romney.
"This isn't my first rodeo. I've been through the mill in races that were big national races, with the media and all the radical left organizations looking at everything I've ever done in my life," he said. "The questions I'm going to be asked I've been asked before, and I've answered them before."
Sometimes, Santorum's positions get him into trouble. In 2003, he drew sharp criticism from Democrats and gay rights groups for comments appearing to compare homosexuality to incest and bigamy. During the presidential campaign, he has remained steadfast in his opposition to same-sex marriage and Obama's repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Santorum's abrupt rise will serve as a rallying cry for gay rights activists, says Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign. The group sent more than 200 volunteers to the Philadelphia suburbs on the eve of Santorum's failed 2006 re-election race to oppose him. Democrat Bob Casey won by 18 percentage points.
"No one else has made opposition to basic rights for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Americans as much of a guiding principle of his public life as Rick Santorum," Cole-Schwartz says. "His showing in Iowa was a wakeup call that will energize gay Americans and our allies."
Santorum is trying to counter his harsher image with that of the all-American boy from the coal and steel country of western Pennsylvania.
"He just looks like a nice guy," says Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, who nevertheless has reservations about Santorum on fiscal issues and doubts his electability. "He looks like the kind of guy that if your daughter brought him home, you wouldn't have a cow."
Santorum served in Congress for 16 years, four in the House and 12 in the Senate, where he evolved from an outsider to the ranks of Senate leadership.
He built a reputation early on as an ambitious and combative lawmaker when he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1991 at the age of 32. He was part of the "Gang of Seven," a group of seven Republican freshmen including current House Speaker John Boehner that highlighted abuses of congressional perks by veteran lawmakers under Democrats' four-decade rule.
He was a member of the 1994 "Republican Revolution" led by House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, who went on to become House speaker and one of Santorum's opponents today. The revolution propelled Republicans into the House majority and helped elect Santorum to the Senate by a narrow, two-percentage-point win over incumbent Democratic senator Harris Wofford.
Santorum showed little patience or deference for the civility and seniority rules that had long characterized the workings of the upper chamber. He successfully helped agitate for term limits for Republican committee chairpersons and eagerly took to the floor for combative exchanges with senior senators such as Edward Kennedy.
"Rick was very aggressive, very passionate about the things he believed in," recalls former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, a Romney supporter who counseled the young senator to temper his rhetorical style. "I said, 'Rick, you can be passionate without being loud,' " Lott says.
One of Santorum's most significant legislative achievements was the 1996 overhaul of the nation's welfare system, in which he played a leading role. The effort captured two of Santorum's driving interests: more efficient government and a keen interest in helping the poor - the latter motivated in part by his devout Roman Catholic faith.
Like many conservatives, Santorum says he wants to help the powerless by empowering them, not entitling them to government benefits. The issue surfaced at a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, on Sunday, when he apparently told voters that he didn't want to "make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money."
Santorum denied making the comment on CNN on Wednesday, calling it a "tongue-tied moment," and said his record of supporting African Americans is strong. "I will match my record against any Democrat or Republican in working with the African-American community," he said.
Santorum carved out a niche as the GOP's go-to senator in cultural battles over abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage, all of which he consistently opposed. He was the lead sponsor of 2003 legislation outlawing late-term abortions, which became law that year and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.
While Santorum's voting record was conservative, he has also been targeted by the party's right flank and on occasion deviated from the party line. His 2003 vote in favor of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit drew the ire of fiscal conservatives because it was the largest expansion of an entitlement program since Medicare in 1965 - and enacted without spending offsets. Santorum now says he regrets his vote.
"We should have paid for it, and we didn't," he said at a Dec. 2 town-hall-style event in New Hampshire. "Looking back, I probably shouldn't have voted for it because of the impact on the deficit."
He also sought earmarks for his district and state, but Santorum now says he supports Congress' decision to ban the practice.
His biggest apostasy among conservatives, which continues to haunt Santorum on the presidential campaign trail, was his decision to endorse fellow Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter in his 2004 primary battle against a more conservative Republican, Pat Toomey. Santorum's backing was critical to Specter's victory and divided conservatives, both in Pennsylvania and nationally, who had long viewed Specter's moderate voting record with suspicion. Specter became a Democrat in 2010 and lost in a primary, leading to Toomey's victory.
Santorum was one of President George W. Bush's staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, he also parted ways with the president on some issues, including opposition to Bush's support for overhauling medical malpractice laws to cap payouts to patients in lawsuits. More often than not, Bush had a reliable ally in Santorum. He defended the president and his agenda to the point of his own detriment in his home state. As Senate Republican Conference chairman, the third-ranking GOP leadership post, he was a national spokesman for the party's agenda.
For instance, Santorum was a vocal proponent of Bush's unsuccessful proposal to allow people to divert money from Social Security to create private investment accounts and Santorum defended Bush's divisive policies on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism even as support for both soured back home.
Santorum was not deeply involved in foreign policy, but his advocacy of Bush's foreign policy agenda has carved out a niche for him as a hard-liner on the nation's interests abroad. He has said he would authorize airstrikes against Iran if they were to become a nuclear threat.
Santorum's conservative politics often put him at odds with his constituency. Pennsylvania voted for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 while electing Santorum to the Senate twice with narrow margins. His voting record and his ties to the Bush administration doomed his 2006 re-election bid from the start. His Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., maintained a consisted double-digit polling lead throughout the race despite Santorum's best efforts to close the gap. Casey dispatched Santorum 59%-41% that November.
Santorum's legacy in his home state remains negative that he placed third in a Sept. 2011 Quinnipiac poll on the Republican primary field. It raises questions about his ability to win the state if he were to become the nominee-a salient reminder that the state's conservatives have not forgotten his support of Specter.
Former Pennsylvania congressman Phil English, a friend and GOP colleague dating back to their days as College Republicans, says Santorum's strengths can also be his biggest weaknesses.
"He has a loyalty to the cause and a willingness to take on risks on behalf of the cause," says English, who backs Romney. "He's not always sympathetic with Republicans who are at odds with his tactics. Rick is also combative in a way that attracts the base, but can be off-putting."
Lott says he has seen a more sedate Santorum on the campaign trail.
"As you get older, you do tend to mellow and learn from your experiences," Lott says. "He has won some battles and endured ignominious defeat."
Santorum's task now is to build a campaign infrastructure in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere to go along with the personal attention he has paid to those states. Some Republican political veterans don't think it's possible.
"The first six months of this year, he did more campaigning here than any other candidate, including Mitt Romney," says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "That being said, he's got almost nothing to show for that."
Throughout 2011, Santorum trailed his Republican rivals in fundraising. He collected less than $1.3 million through Sept. 30, federal records show. Supporters say contributions surged with his sudden rise in Iowa, but Santorum is likely to be outspent significantly by Romney, who amassed more than $32 million during the first nine months of 2011. (Candidates don't report October-to-December fundraising totals until Jan. 31.)
Romney is pumping $264,000 into television ads in New Hampshire, while Santorum is spending just $16,000 in the Granite State this week, according to the Associated Press. Romney also is up with TV commercials in nine of 10 Florida media markets and is targeting the 400,000 Florida Republicans who have requested absentee ballots.
"Florida is a state that will devour resources faster than a candidate can raise them, unless you've already been raising them and you still have money on hand," says Justin Sayfie, co-chairman of Romney's campaign there. He sees little chance for lesser known candidates "unless you catch a wave and you know how to harness all the energy of that wave."
Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania political consultant who ran Santorum's unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign, says Santorum has the energy. He recalls how he overcame a "shoestring" budget in Iowa with relentless campaigning at 381 meetings.
"Whether they like him or not, people will tell you there are few people on the stump that can outperform him," says Galko, who also worked as a Senate aide to Santorum. "He comes across as this very sincere guy who says what he believes."
In the Senate, Santorum routinely logged 18-hour days. "You can't outwork him," Galko says.
Still, Fred Malek, a veteran Republican fundraiser who is uncommitted in the race, says it will be hard for Santorum to overcome Romney's financial advantage.
"The vast majority of people with the capacity to give or raise substantial amounts of money will give to someone who can beat Obama and be a good president," Malek says. He calls Santorum "a man of strong character" who lacks the "executive experience and record to take on and defeat Obama."
At Santorum headquarters Wednesday, volunteers fielded phone calls and affixed address stickers to direct mail while campaign officials scrambled to get a press bus for Thursday's town-hall-style events. They said Santorum's genuine demeanor were at the heart of his appeal.
"When Rick speaks, there's a believability behind him,'' says Lori Gallant, 35, a customer service representative who began volunteering about a month ago. "He's pro-life, very pro-family, a lot of faith, and he believes in the Constitution.''
"I think we're in a position to surprise," says volunteer David Pasch, 23, who arrived from Allendale, N.J., on Wednesday. "A top-two finish is well within our reach."
Pasch was won over seeing Santorum speak at the Ames Straw Poll. "He seemed like the only genuine kind of guy up there," and the most knowledgeable on foreign policy, Pasch says.
Pam Barber, 55, was phone-banking for the first time. From the debates she has watched, she believes Santorum has shown the best grasp of foreign policy, despite "the little airtime he's gotten."
Foreign policy and the economy are her top issues, and she likes Santorum's principled stance. "So I like the fact that he's a Christian? I do. Do I like the fact that he's a principled Christian? Even better." That's not because she shares his opposition to same-sex marriage - she's undecided on the issue, but she likes his "ethics and integrity."
Romney is not inevitable, despite his double-digit lead in New Hampshire opinion surveys, she says. "This idea that just because Romney is from the state next door and has a house on Lake Winipisaukee, we're all going to vote for him - that's just not happening.''
At Santorum's small headquarters in a red brick-and-shingles office building in Bedford, satellite trucks crowded the parking lot Wednesday as the surging candidate did live interviews with John King on CNN and Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
Nick Pappas, his state political director, boasts of 600 volunteers making phone calls. "We've easily doubled our volunteer totals since mid-last week," he says.
But where does he get the money and logistics ?
"He needs enough money to do an ad buy, set up phone banks and get some free publicity," says Gary Bauer, a prominent conservative who ran for president in 2000. "Any candidate who can put those things together still has a shot."
Contributing: Susan Page in Manchester, N.H.; Alan Gomez in Washington, D.C.