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Santorum's profile high in Schiavo case

His party is split, but he says he has obligation in Fla. visit.
 
On Tuesday, Sen. Rick Santorum visited Terri Schiavo's hospice - the first member of Congress to do so - throwing his own role in the life-and-death drama into sharp relief.
 
From the outset, the Pennsylvania Republican has been out front in the case, helping to lead the congressional effort to enable the parents of the brain-damaged woman to renew their pleas for intervention in the federal courts.
 
Santorum's visit, as Schiavo lay at death's threshold, occurred at a time when the country and even his party are divided about the government's place in a personal tragedy.
 
With his political future at stake, the two-term senator said he felt an obligation to make the journey.
 
"Obviously, you care about the consequences of your actions," he said yesterday as he prepared to leave Florida. "I was in Tampa, I was 15 minutes away and having worked on this case, I just felt an obligation to go by and pay my respects to the family."
 
Santorum originally went to Florida for a town-hall meeting on Social Security, which was canceled, and for a series of fund-raising events for his reelection campaign.
 
He said he spent an hour with Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, meeting with them in a makeshift residence opposite the hospice "talking about faith and God and the struggles they are going through."
 
Santorum said his intervention in the issue was less a matter of religious conviction and more "a responsibility as a federal legislator to make sure that people's federal rights are being protected.
 
"I would be doing this whether the polls were saying one thing or another or whether different factions of my own party were saying one thing or another - and, by the way, they are," he said.
 
Republicans have differed among themselves as to whether congressional intervention was the right course. Polls have shown by wide margins that a majority of Americans believe that government should have stayed out of the case.
 
In an op-ed article in yesterday's New York Times, former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, an Episcopal minister, said that "high-profile Republican efforts" to intervene on behalf of Terri Schiavo's parents "can rightfully be interpreted as yielding to the pressure of religious power blocs."
 
Danforth said the GOP agenda had increasingly "become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives."
 
A magnifying glass
 
Santorum's role in the Schiavo case - as with almost any position the senator takes at this time - is seen under the magnifying glass of his campaign for reelection in 2006, in which he is expected to face a stiff challenge from State Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat. Casey, through a campaign adviser, said: "The Schiavo case presents a very complex and difficult situation. In such a case, I believe that we should err on the side of life and that federal court review is appropriate."
 
In recent weeks, Santorum has appeared to moderate some of his views, softening his position on the death penalty and advocating an increase in the minimum wage.
 
As chair of the Republican conference in the Senate, the No. 3 position in the GOP leadership, Santorum is charged with communicating the party's policy positions.
 
Along with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R., Fla.), Santorum has emerged as the point man on the Schiavo intervention.
 
"I hear people say, Let the family decide. The point is, the family can't," he explained. "As a result, the courts do and when the courts get involved in an issue as large as this, the taking of a life, then there are certain inherent protections we've built into our legal system to make sure that discretion is not abused."
 
A 'whirlwind'
 
But the courts abused their discretion, in Santorum's view, when they refused to take a closer look at appeals to reconnect Schiavo's feeding tube. The rights that even accrue to condemned criminals, he said, were not applied to Schiavo.
 
For Pennsylvanians, who make up the second-oldest population among states after Florida, the issue has real consequences, said Randall Miller, a professor at St. Joseph's University.
 
Santorum is caught in a "whirlwind," Miller said.
 
"He could be tarred with the image of those meddling Republicans," said Miller, or of the public perception of politicians trying to score points off of personal pain.
 
But Miller noted that Santorum has developed "armor" because he has employed moral convictions in his positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. "So he won't necessarily be seen, as some others, as trying to exploit the issue," Miller said.
 
Santorum is taking some political risk, said political analyst Larry Sabato, given that most Americans in polls have said they "resented federal intervention in this private tragedy."
 
Sabato described Santorum as a "conviction politician," and said the senator might be assuming that by November 2006 "the only people who remember or care about this issue are conservative Christians" who approve of Santorum's actions.
 
Santorum said he disagreed with Danforth's op-ed comments, adding that "this is consistent with Republican principles... and that people's constitutional rights should be protected"...
 
By Steve Goldstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 31, 2005
 
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