It’s been widely noted that Rick Santorum’s rise in the GOP nominating contest has coincided with a shift in focus away from economic matters that have (arguably) favored Mitt Romney, and toward social issues that play to the former Pennsylvania senator’s strengths among conservatives.
In particular, as the spotlight turned in recent weeks to the administration’s battle with the Catholic Church over mandated contraception coverage under the new healthcare law, it seemed to create a real opening for Santorum - who has long been calling Romney “uniquely unqualified” to challenge President Obama on hot-button conservative bete noires like Obamacare.
But looking back over the landscape of the past few weeks, we think there was another factor that was absolutely pivotal in propelling Santorum to where he is today: The much-covered (and thankfully brief) hospitalization of his daughter, Isabella. As you may recall, Santorum left the campaign trail just days before the Florida primary to be with his 3 year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder and had been hospitalized with pneumonia. The coverage was, understandably, strongly sympathetic, and it brought fresh attention to Santorum, who was then struggling in the shadow of the Romney-Gingrich slugfest.
At the time, there was a smattering of speculation about whether Santorum might get a “Bella Bounce” in Florida. But while that never materialized in the Sunshine State (where Santorum lost badly), it seems over the longer term, all the attention paid to Santorum’s daughter was clearly beneficial to his campaign.
For one thing, the focus helped soften the impact of what were actually quite emphatic losses. In the wake of both Florida and Nevada, nearly every interview Santorum gave began with a discussion of Bella’s condition, rather than the usual “why are you still in this race?” questions.
And the crisis helped humanize Santorum. It softened the edges of a persona that had, up until then, most often been painted in the media as (to quote Mitt Romney) “severely” conservative and not necessarily all that likable (sweater vests notwithstanding). It also gave real credence to his argument that he understood the struggles of average Americans. In doing so, it gave Santorum a sudden - and extremely potent - edge over Romney, who has struggled all along on the likability and authenticity fronts.
Santorum’s experience raising Bella has also allowed him to make the case that his crusade against the Obama administration’s healthcare law is personal. As he told Fox host Bill O’Reilly, for example:
“She is the joy of our lives. She is the most pleasant, sweet little girl you would ever want to meet. And she is sort of the center of the family. And I miss her terribly when I’m on the road but in many respects one of the reasons I’m out here is because, you know, fighting for little kids like Bella who in many respects are, I think are going to be left behind whether it’s Obamacare or whether it’s a system where government is going to start to evaluate people not based on who they are or what they are but what they can do. And that to me is a world that I don’t want to be a part of and I’m going to fight to make sure it never happens.”
Notably, the positive TV ad Santorum is now running in Michigan features three shots of Bella - including a penultimate shot of the two of them that serves as the ad’s most likely take-away image. It’s nearly identical to the ad he ran in South Carolina - except that then, far fewer viewers were likely to know Bella Santorum’s story. Now they do.
On Wednesday, pundits took notice when Santorum won some high praise from Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, who told Music Radar he found Santorum “presidential” and hoped he would win the White House. The heavy metal band leader added: “Earlier in the election, I was completely oblivious as to who Rick Santorum was, but when the dude went home to be with his daughter when she was sick, that was very commendable.”
The “Bella Bounce” may be playing out after all - just when it matters most.
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