Santorum content; no wish to return to office

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RESTON, Va. -- Outside Rick Santorum's office, rain was falling so hard it bounced. Sixteen miles away, the Senate in which he was once the conservative standard-bearer had taken the lead in crafting an economic rescue plan from which the House had recoiled.

It was a Beltway day fraught with excitement. Even the weather was dramatic. It was the kind of day on which many a losing candidate might be giving an important speech to his bathroom mirror, imagining what might have been.

Rick Santorum?

He wants to talk about the movies.

He has this screenplay. There's this family. In Iran.

"It's a story that essentially follows a family from 1979 through the current time," he says.

The main character is the youngest brother in the family.

And?

"I think we'll just leave it at that," he says.

When it comes to winning the culture wars, Rick Santorum, 50. a man who rose and fell on his lack of artifice, isn't about to give away the plot line this time.

In the course of an hour, he expounds on Islamic extremism, how to change the culture by becoming a movie czar, the blessing of two special needs children -- one who died quickly, the other who, at five months old, is confounding the odds. He talks about not getting up at 5 in the morning and why, two years ago, the voters who catapulted him to the top dropped him down the electoral well.

But, with an almost studied resolve, he declines to miss the Senate.

"I have said very few times, I think, 'Gee, I'd like to be there,'" he says.

Run again?

"Right now it's apparent to me that I shouldn't and I'm not itchin' to get back."

This from a man who also spent a long part of the visit explaining the intricacies of the financial bailout bill; the reason the added "sweeteners" could benefit the economy; his worries that not enough private sector money went into the package.

Surely, he'd like to say those things on the floor of the Senate.

"I'm very happy to say it on Fox News and I've probably communicated it to more people than if I'd said it on the floor of the Senate," he says.

Fox News is one of his new homes. So is The Ethics and Public Policy Center -- a center-right think tank where he heads up a project warning of Islamic extremism. He keeps an office, too, at MPower Media, in this D.C. suburb, where he's vice president for development.

The pay in each job, he says, is not as much as in the Senate. Added together, however, he's doing famously, thanks.

Upstart to powerhouse

His latest project was helping to put together backing for a movie that hit the theaters this month: "An American Carol." As the name suggests, it's a retelling of the Charles Dickens story, but this time Scrooge is "Michael Malone," a Michael Moore-style director who is visited by ghosts who show him the glories of his nation and he awakens a man transformed.

The work premiered at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul -- a convention Mr. Santorum attended as a senator emeritus.

His own transformation, from the lovable upstart of the 18th Congressional District -- one of the House's "Gang of Seven" in the early 1990s that merrily disrupted the cozy old boy atmosphere -- into an ex-senator began sometime after his first term.

He arrived by unseating Harris Wofford in 1994. Mr. Wofford was a brainy but hard-to-pin-down academic who won the post amid a voter uprising over a sour economy, middle-class insecurity and his opponent's association with an unpopular president.

Mr. Santorum's reputation as a giant-killer and go-for-broke rhetorician landed him a spot in the Senate leadership.

In due course, he was unseated by Bob Casey Jr., the pleasant but hard-to-pin-down young man preferred by voters unhappy over a sour economy, middle-class insecurity and Mr. Santorum's association with an unpopular president.

Mr. Santorum sees himself as a man who transformed in the eyes of Pennsylvanians from their senator to a national leader in the Senate.

"I was on all the television shows, I was doing the Sunday shows. I was very identified and very close to the president, worked and supported a lot of his programs. I was the spokesman for the Republican/conservative message," he says.

Things were compounded by the uproar over his residence in Penn Hills. A local Democrat challenged his residency. He gave an interview with the Associated Press on the issue of same-sex marriage that became best known for his use of the phrase "man on dog."

Absent a strong and provable connection with Pennsylvania voters, and his depiction as a man more interested in ideological wars than Allegheny County, he was an irresistible target.

And, yes, he has a few thoughts on the news media.

"I think the media went about portraying that in a particular light that was not favorable to me in the state of Pennsylvania. I gave them every opportunity to do so because I was out there," he said.

He was out there. And then he was out.

Today, he is the vision of contentment. He has moved the family to Northern Virginia, precisely where he declines to say. Earlier this year, Karen Santorum gave birth to a daughter, Isabella Maria. She has Trisomy 18 -- a condition similar to Down Syndrome.

He ticks off the numbers.

Ninety percent of these children die in the womb. Of those born, 90 percent don't make it past the first year. Bella, as the Santorums call her, has lasted five months.

"She's already beaten the odds to a fare-thee-well and we are hopeful and optimistic that she will continue to do so," he says. "Whatever the case may be, we know she is going to be a special child."

Ten years ago, the Santorums had a son, Gabriel, who died in infancy from a birth defect. The ensuing book about that brief life showed a surprisingly accepting side to a man who built his image on hard rhetoric. The New Yorker magazine wrote sympathetically of him.

Battling 'Islamo-Fascism'

Today, pulling down a hefty post-Senate paycheck, Mr. Santorum is chasing full speed after the issues that got him attention and in the kind of language that got him in political trouble.

His take on "Islamo-Fascism" -- essentially, the right's term for Muslim extremism -- would generate howls coming from a Senator.

"Every conflict has two fronts to it -- one is a physical front, in this case we are engaged in a war, military conflict. But there's also an ideological component. And the ideological component is in my mind quite apparent but we have refused to engage it," he says. "I don't know how you win an ideological war against radical Muslims -- and that's who we're fighting. We don't say that, we call them terrorists -- it's a euphemism for what they are. But we are fighting a radical ideology that is based on the Islamic religion."

He quantifies the problem. More potential for controversy:

"Not all Muslims hold to it, obviously, but a significant number do. And a significant number are sympathetic to it even though they don't engage in it. And we need to identify that. Just because we may offend some people doesn't mean you can't be accurate as to who and what the enemy is doing and what they're all about and why they're doing it."

Somewhere in all this, a visitor notices Mr. Santorum is wearing one of those two-toned shirts, the kind with white collar and cuffs appended to colored torso and arms -- the kind popular 10 years ago, when he was in the Senate. Then, the cuffs stand out: he's wearing Senate cufflinks.

Somewhere, there's the nagging notion, but, no, Mr. Santorum says, he's not a man with regrets. He let loose, said his piece and it's done. No regrets.

"I'd rather have been there for those 12 years and had the impact I've had than to not have been in a position to have that impact -- not have the impact and be there for 18, 24 years.

"What's the point?"




Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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