Will Terri Schiavo Haunt Rick Santorum in New Hampshire?

The former Pennsylvania senator fought to save the late Florida woman's life. Now the New Hampshire state Legislature is revisiting the Schiavo controversy—at the worst possible time for Santorum.

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 7:00 AM EST

The fight over the fate of Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old Florida woman who died in 2005 after a judge ordered her life-preserving feeding tubes removed, captivated and divided the American public. Then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who's now running for president, was one of the leading proponents of state intervention to save Schiavo's life, cosponsoring a bill to intervene in the case and even visiting Schiavo in the hospital. That aggressive advocacy helped lead to Santorum's ouster from Congress the next year. Now, the Schiavo debate is rearing its head in New Hampshire—and on the same day that Santorum needs a strong showing in the state's first-in-the-nation primary after his near-win in Iowa's caucuses.

On Tuesday, Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, is scheduled to testify before the New Hampshire Legislature in support of a bill making March 31 "a day to remember Terri Schiavo." Republican state Rep. Jerry Bergevin introduced the bill, and a GOP colleague, Daniel Itse, has cosponsored it. Bergevin, who recently made headlines for introducing a separate bill to stop the teaching of evolution, has endorsed Santorum.

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Tuesday, of course, is also the day of New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary. Santorum, who's running third or fourth in state polls, needs a strong showing in the primary to stay competitive (or relevant) in the battle for his party's nomination. A reminder of his outspoken role in the Schiavo fight, however, won't do his campaign any favors, especially in a state where GOP voters hold more moderate views on social issues while leaning further to the right on fiscal ones. Indeed, Santorum has slipped in state polls after sparring with voters over his conservative views on gay marriage and abortion.

In 2005, Santorum repeatedly demanded that Schiavo be kept alive against the wishes of her husband. "We need to do something to stop this unconscionable act on the part of the Florida Court," he said. "Terri Schiavo is a daughter, a sister, and most importantly, a person. We cannot allow an innocent person to be put to death." Santorum even used his position as a US senator to get Congress to subpoena the judge in the case. (The judge ignored Congress.) And most memorably, Santorum paid a visit Schiavo in the hospital when all the nation was watching—a visit, it turned out, made possible by Walmart's private jet and coinciding with a fundraiser of Santorum's.

Santorum's role in the Schiavo controversy damaged him in the eyes of voters. Polls conducted in the run-up to Santorum's 2006 reelection bid found that Pennsylvania voters opposed Congress injecting itself into the Schiavo controversy. More than a third of Pennsylvania voters in an April 2005 survey said Santorum's actions in the case made them less likely to vote for him. Santorum ended up losing to Democrat Bob Casey by a staggering 18 percentage points, the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent Republican senator in US history. Many post-mortem reports on Santorum's loss pointed to his Schiavo advocacy as a reason for his downfall.

To this day, Santorum defends his support for preserving Schiavo's life. "What I cared about with Terri Schiavo was that a judge looked at the case fairly, and they did," he recently told CNN. "And they made their decision."

But now Terri Schiavo and Rick Santorum are meeting at one of the most inopportune moments for Santorum, the hardline social conservative in the GOP presidential field. The Santorum campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether Santorum supported New Hampshire's Terri Schiavo remembrance bill. A spokeswoman for the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, a nonprofit that helps incapacitated people and has publicized New Hampshire's Schiavo bill, says Santorum has not yet endorsed the New Hampshire bill. But it goes without saying that Santorum doesn't want a repeat of his 2006 trouncing in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary—which means he'll probably want to steer clear of the state's Terri Schiavo bill.

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