Santorum's private side, through wife's eyes

Karen Santorum, speaking with Jan Crawford
Karen Santorum, speaking with Jan Crawford

(CBS News) In her first network television interview, Karen Santorum offered a revealing look at her husband.

Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, is a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Karen Santorum is very much her husband's partner and equal. A lawyer and nurse, she says they talk about policy and strategy, and that she tells him when he slips up.

But she has stayed behind the scenes, rarely talking to the media.

Karen Santorum defends Rick on women's issues

In our wide-ranging conversation, Karen Santorum was warm and genuine, and talked openly about their lives, their marriage, and the challenges they've endured.

"When he walks through the door," Karen said, "he is not a senator. He's not a guy running for president. He's a husband and a father. And he immediately shifts gears. He's in the kitchen, making a great meal."

His specialties, she said, are "Chicken Marsala, Pasta Arribiata - and pancakes with the kids."

But these days, Rick Santorum is at home - on the campaign trail.

Did Karen ever think she could be first lady? "No. And I still don't even go there," she responded. "I just take it one day at a time - work hard, and pray hard, and we'll see where this is going."

They've come a long way since they met by chance 24 years ago in Pittsburgh, when then-Karen Garver was offered a job at the firm where Santorum worked. He was with a group of lawyers who took her to a recruiting dinner.

"It was honestly a love-at-first-sight kind of thing," Karen recalled.


"Oh, absolutely. ... He was so kind, funny, friendly. ... And I went home that night and I wrote in my diary, 'I met the guy I am going to marry.'"

Did Karen accept the job offer?

"Yes, I did!" she laughed, "because of him."

They married in 1990, the year Rick Santorum was first elected to Congress. Less than two years later, Elizabeth, the first of their eight children, was born.

"I knew," Karen says, "once I had kids, I wanted to be a mom at home."

The Santorums are devout Catholics. Rick Santorum's strongly conservative views on social issues - he's anti-abortion and is morally opposed to birth control - have led critics to question his views on women.

"Number one," Karen says, "he's been surrounded by strong women his whole life. He continues to be surrounded by strong women in his daily life, and the best, some of the best staffers he has ever had, from press secretaries to scheduler and the issues people, have all been women.

"He completely supports well-educated career women. If I wanted to work full-time as a lawyer, he would have been 100 percent behind me."

One hundred percent? "Absolutely. If I told him tomorrow, 'Rick, you know what? I want to go out and work full-time, he would have been 100 percent behind me."

Karen's frustrations with the media are clear and, in many ways, understandable. They've been mocked by some for how they grieved the loss of their infant son, Gabriel, 16 years ago. Born prematurely, he died shortly after he was born.

"We brought Gabriel home from the hospital to have a funeral mass and to bury him," she says. "And so, they twist it and they make it sound like it was some crazy thing. ... We brought him home from the hospital to introduce him to our kids and to place him. It was for the funeral mass and the burial.

"What is so sad to me is that no one can tell me how to grieve, and I'm not going to tell anyone else how to grieve."

Even Karen Santorum's personal life nearly 30 years ago has been under a microscope - in nearly every story written about her, it's mentioned she lived with a doctor 40 years her senior who, as part of his practice, performed abortions.

"I went through a phase, it was a phase, and made some stupid decisions," she reflected. "I did some stupid things. And I did go through a phase of life when I wasn't living the way I should have been. And for anyone out there ... who's in the same phase, there is healing, there is change."

Santorum said that time made her realize what was important to her: "I just feel very strongly about faith and family, and I also feel very strongly about life - the life issue. And now that we have a special needs little girl, I feel especially stronger about the dignity and value of every person from the moment of conception until death."

Their daughter, Bella, was born with a rare genetic disorder. Along with the death of her son, Karen says learning Bella's diagnosis was the most difficult time in her life.

"It was always, one of us was with her at the hospital, one of us was at home with the kids, and then we would switch. He was amazing ... bringing me coffee, bringing me breakfast, you know. Helping with the kids, and helping out at home."

The demands of their family life and children were one reason Karen Santorum initially didn't want her husband to run for president. Another was the loss of privacy.

"I wouldn't even talk about it for awhile. So eventually, Rick said, 'I'm just going to ask you to pray about it,' and I started to pray about it. It took us about a year to make a decision. We talked a lot about it, we prayed a lot about it and, in the end, despite my resistance, I honestly believe that this is the path God wants us on."

Karen says she believes her husband also brings one quality the other candidates lack: courage, that he will fight for what he believes in, as he fought for their family.

Voters tell CBS News that's one thing they like about Santorum - he means what he says, and he's real. And in that sense, he and his wife are very much alike.

We don't see Karen on the campaign trail nearly as much as the other wives. She has stayed behind the scenes. She says they talk on the phone. She tells him when she thinks he goes too far - the other day, for example, when he called President Obama a snob, she had something to say about that. So she is behind the scenes, but we have been seeing her lately at some of these rallies.

But she says that, obviously, the demands of their life and their children make them very different than the other candidates, who either have grown children or, in the case of Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista, do not have kids.

To see Jan Crawford's report, click on the video in the player above.

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News' chief legal correspondent and based in Washington, D.C.