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Freedom, Faith And The Italian Roots Of Rick Santorum

La Stampa’s election correspondent catches up with the Italian-American senator from Pennsylvania, the breakthrough Republican candidate, whose standard stump speech includes an immigrant’s tale of the American dream.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum with his wife and one of their seven children (Gage Skidmore)
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum with his wife and one of their seven children (Gage Skidmore)
Paolo Mastrolilli

Rick Santorum is clearly proud of his Italian roots. And the story of his grandfather's arrival in America is with him all along the campaign trail. "My family instilled in me the values on which I base my life and my political career," he told La Stampa earlier this week.

Now, 24 hours after his come-from-behind second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, it's time to try to better understand the American political world's man of the hour. We caught up with Santorum at a "Rock The Vote" rally for young people in Des Moines on the day of his impressive caucus showing. The candidate was joined by his wife Karen and six of their seven children. The only child missing was Bella, the youngest at three-and-a-half, who is afflicted by Trisomy 18, a condition similar to Down syndrome. It's an illness that doctors say usually has a life expectancy of around one year, but Bella is still here, and her parents fight every day to see her grow up.

The Santorums are practicing Catholics, and this is the way they look at life. They already lost a son, Gabriel, born prematurely, who died just two hours after his birth. The parents asked the doctors' permission to bring the tiny corpse home and introduce the baby to their other children as their little brother who'd turned into an angel. The Santorums also wanted to sleep with him at least one night. Odd and macabre, say his political adversaries. Admirable and moving, say his friends.

When he takes the microphone on the youth rally stage at a local high school, Santorum begins right away to tell his family's story: "My grandfather didn't like fascism. When Mussolini arrived in power, he decided he would build his future in a country that believed in his potential. And so he came to America."

At the time, his grandfather, Pietro, already had a son, Aldo, the future father of the Pennsylvania Senator. But Pietro had decided it was best to leave the family behind in Riva del Garda, in northern Italy, while he got settled in the United States. There he found a job in a mine. When Aldo was seven years old, he and the rest of the family moved to America.

"Pietro ended up continuing to work in those mines until he was 72 years old, digging coal," Santorum told the crowd. "I'll never forget the first time I saw someone who had died. It was my grandfather. And I knelt next to his coffin, and all I could do at eye level was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was, "Those hands dug freedom for me.""

Recalling Aldo Santorum's pasta sauce

Indeed, Santorum's father, Aldo, who died last January, went on to complete high school and joined the military in 1942, repairing airplanes in the Pacific during the Second World War. When he returned from duty, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he went to college, graduating in psychology.

"Dad was always the cook of the family," said Santorum. "On Sundays we would always have pasta and sauce. When I was a kid, I didn't like his sauce -- it was too heavy -- but now I find myself making the same thing for my kids."

It's a blue-collar story, and Santorum gets strong applause as he leaves the stage, which is when La Stampa manages to get close to the surging candidate. "La Stampa? I know your newspaper. I'm proud of my Italian roots. I always tell the story of my grandfather because he is a source of great inspiration for me. The core values in which I believe, on which I base my existence and my politics, come from that."

Do those values include the right to life? "Of course, the value and dignity of every every life. It is what motivates me more than anything else to get up each morning to do battle," he says.

Right now Italy and all of Europe are facing a serious crisis. How do we overcome it? Santorum doesn't hesitate: "You must go back to the lesson of my grandfather, who worked hard, with no excuses and no complaints."

And for America? "Same response, same lesson," says the candidate. "Follow the example of those who built this country, with their own drive and work ethic."

Read the original story in Italian

Photo - Gage Skidmore

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