Who Is Rick Santorum?

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Just call him "the Rooster": a primer on the sweater-vested former Pennsylvania senator who's suddenly looking like a threat to win Iowa.

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ROCK RAPIDS, IOWA -- Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who's enjoying a last-minute surge in Iowa in advance of Tuesday's Republican caucuses, has made a name for himself in Iowa but is still a mostly unknown quantity nationally. Here are 11 things you might not know about the latest GOP contender to seize the fickle 2012 spotlight.

1. He Has a Google Problem. In a 2003 interview, Santorum said allowing same-sex marriage could open the door to other unacceptable relationships, such as "man on child" or "man on dog." Enraged by the equating of homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality, sex columnist Dan Savage, who is gay, asked his readers to redefine "Santorum" as a disgusting sexual term, then enlisted their help to boost the new definition in Google rankings. It remains the No. 1 non-sponsored result for the former senator's distinctive last name. What does it mean? Well, you can Google it (NSFW).

2. He's Always Worked This Hard. In Iowa, Santorum has become known for his dogged retail campaigning -- he's logged more than 350 campaign events in all of the state's 99 counties. It was a similar story in 1990, when Santorum got his start in politics at the age of 32 by unexpectedly knocking off a seven-term incumbent congressman in a strongly Democratic district in the Pittsburgh suburbs. He knocked on thousands of doors and bludgeoned his opponent for spending too much time out of the district. His win was considered so improbable, he says, that the National Republican Congressional Committee didn't know his name on Election Night. Thrown into an even less GOP-friendly district by redistricting in 1992, he repeated the feat, and in 1994 he knocked off an incumbent Democratic senator.

3. He's a Culture Warrior. Homosexuality, abortion and family values have been the signature issues of Santorum's career, rising to prominence as he did during the height of the 1990s culture wars. He authored the partial-birth abortion ban that passed the Senate in 2003. He proposed an amendment to the No Child Left Behind legislation that would have required public-school teachers to discuss the "controversy" surrounding evolution. Remember Terri Schiavo? That was him, too -- he was one of the leading voices calling for the federal government to intervene to prevent the Florida woman from being taken off life support amid conflicting family wishes. Santorum decries secularism, hedonism and the idea that different family configurations are equally acceptable, openly pining for a bygone society built around heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles. In his book, It Takes a Family -- intended as a rebuttal to Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village -- Santorum blamed "the influence of radical feminism" for the distressing fact that women were finding it "more socially affirming to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children."

4. He Has a Big Family. Santorum and his wife, Karen, have seven living children. A devout Catholic, he is personally opposed to contraception, which he has called "harmful to women," though he says he would not attempt to outlaw it. An eighth child, Gabriel, was born premature at 20 weeks in 1996 and survived for just two hours; in her book about Gabriel's brief time on earth, Karen wrote that they brought his dead body home from the hospital and introduced the other children to their brother. ''Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness," Karen wrote. "Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, 'This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.''' The Santorums' youngest, Bella, was born with a severe, usually fatal genetic defect related to Down syndrome. Against the odds, she has survived to the age of 3. Santorum frequently speaks on the trail about her and her ongoing health problems, and his campaign even produced a web video about her fight for life. The two eldest Santorum children, 20-year-old Elizabeth and 19-year-old John, are taking time off from college to work on their father's campaign.

5. Why You've Never Heard of Him. Santorum hasn't held office for over five years, having lost his 2006 bid for re-election to a third Senate term. His 18-point losing margin was the biggest loss ever by an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican senator -- an inconvenient footnote to Santorum's electability argument, which he tries to explain away by claiming 2006 was a historically bad year for the GOP nationally. Ironically for a politician who'd first won office by criticizing his rival's absences, Santorum was damaged in that race by questions about his residency -- the Pittsburgh-area home he claimed as his was occupied by renters, while his children were enrolled in a Pennsylvania-based online high school from their home in Northern Virginia. As Santorum turned to apocalyptic fear-mongering about the threat of radical Islamism, his Democratic opponent, Robert Casey Jr., replied, "No one believes terrorists are going to be more likely to attack us because I defeat Rick Santorum. Does even he believe that?"

6. His High School Nickname Was "The Rooster." According to a 2005 profile in the Philadelphia City Paper, when Santorum was in high school, "Everybody called him 'Rooster' because of a strand of hair on the back of his head which stood up, and because of his competitive, in-your-face attitude. 'He would debate anything and everything with you, mostly sports,' [a friend recalled]. 'He was like a rooster. He never backed down.'" That profile also contains this description of the young Santorum, before he met his wife, courtesy of a cousin: "Rick was a funny guy. He sported a bushy moustache for a time, wore Hawaiian shirts and smoked cigars. He liked to laugh, drink and call things 'horsey-assey.' He was very popular and fun to be around."

7. He Represented the World Wrestling Federation. Santorum has a bachelor's degree from Pennsylvania State University, an M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson. In his first career, as a lawyer, he represented the World Wrestling Federation, "arguing that pro wrestling was not a sport and should be exempt from federal steroid regulations," according to the City Paper profile.

8. He's Obsessed With Iran. Santorum is an extreme Iran hawk, arguing that tough action, likely military, is needed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In effect, he says, the U.S. has been at war with Iran since 1979, and regime change will be necessary to ensure the country is no longer a threat. Santorum has been pounding this drum for some time. In 2005, he authored a bill to put $10 million toward Iran regime change.

9. He's a First-Generation American. Santorum's grandfather immigrated from Italy when his father was young. Santorum frequently mentions this fact to support his argument that he's not against immigration, only illegal immigration, against which he takes a very tough stance. On Sunday in northwestern Iowa, he pointed to the five years his grandfather spent apart from his family to argue that breaking up families to send illegal immigrants home is not inhumane, as some contend. His family was temporarily broken up, he said, "but America was worth it."

10. The Rap on Him. As Santorum's chances have improved recently, Mitt Romney has attacked him as a Washington insider who lacks executive experience. Rick Perry has taken aim at his seeking of earmarks, his votes in favor of increased federal spending and his support for raising the debt ceiling while he was in Congress. Though Santorum believes in lowering taxes and decreasing regulation, his willingness to get government involved in people's private lives and his aggressive national-security views tend to supersede his belief in small government. But the mark on Santorum's record that seems to chafe conservative primary voters the most is his endorsement of his former colleague, former Sen. Arlen Specter, in Specter's 2004 Republican primary against Pat Toomey. Santorum recorded a pro-Specter ad vouching for his conservative bona fides and continues to defend Specter's record. In 2010, facing almost certain defeat, Specter switched parties, only to lose the Democratic primary. Toomey won the general election.

11. The Sweater Vest. Santorum has recently adopted a sartorial trademark, wearing a sweater vest over a dress shirt at every recent campaign stop. Asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd how that came about, Santorum said it started when he wore one at a Mike Huckabee-hosted candidate forum in Des Moines in mid-December. "That day, I just happened to have a sweater vest on," he said. People at that event took notice -- some wondered whether the inspiration came from Santorum's national communications director, Hogan Gidley, whom Santorum describes as "one of the most unique dressers in political history." (For the record, Gidley denies involvement.) Ever since then, Santorum has been sporting the sweater vest, which, with its aggressively vanilla, anti-fashion flavor, seems to suit him.

Image credit: Reuters/John Gress

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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