Florida Primary: Rick Santorum’s Daughter’s Illness

Undaunted by his weak showing in Florida, the ex-senator steamed on to Nevada. How his daughter’s illness drives him on. By Michelle Cottle. Plus, read more Daily Beast contributors on what Romney’s win means.

John Gurzinski / AP

Like Hobbes’s state of nature, the battle for the Sunshine State was nasty, brutish, and short. It was also wholly unsurprising. Dull, even.

But now that Mitt has officially crushed Newt’s doughy butt like a python squeezing the life out of an Everglades swamp possum, we should look forward to increasing discussion of the ever-intriguing question: whither Santorum?

Despite his red-hot debate showings—and a retroactive win in Iowa—Senator Sweatervest was basically a nonfactor in Florida. In fact, we lost Rick altogether for a couple of days late in the game, when he had to leave the trail to be with his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who was hospitalized last weekend with a life-threatening case of double pneumonia. (Born with the excruciating genetic disorder Trisomy 18, Bella lives with heartbreakingly precarious health.)

It was a rare moment of civility in the race when everyone from Mitt to Newt to David Axelrod set aside their shivs and offered up their prayers for the Santorum clan.

Despite the bipartisan support, Santorum’s family drama provoked a bit of gentle chatter as to whether it makes sense for the family-values senator to be spending so much time away from home when he has a child whose life, as he himself reminds us, is “measured in days and weeks.” (Already Bella has beaten the odds: most Trisomy 18 babies don’t make it to term, and of those who do, half don’t see their first birthday.)

As one Republican consultant told The Washington Post this week, “I’d only say that, for me, I’d want my butt off the campaign trail and wouldn’t be calling in to any Tea Partier or anywhere else. The value of family that is so important in our party ... I would not be surprised if some voters did not find some hypocrisy in this.”

Most poignantly, the candidate himself has discussed the agonizing choice he must constantly make about whether to continue his long-shot campaign or cling to every available second with Bella.

But as Santorum tells it, his candidacy is fueled by the sense of purpose that his daughter gives him. On the stump, he talks of his compulsion to run “because we wanted to make sure we had a health-care system and we had a society that respected the dignity of every human life. And what better way to go out and defend that than by talking about the dignity of every human life in our own lives?”

In some circles, parallels are being drawn between Santorum’s decision to pursue the presidency and John Edwards’s (pre-scandal) decision to stay in the 2008 hunt despite his wife’s breast-cancer relapse.

Of course, considering what a repellent figure Edwards turned out to be, many people might view this comparison as a negative—as proof of some kind of grotesque cynicism that leads ambitious pols to run roughshod over, or even exploit, their personal tragedies for electoral gain.

I disagree.

I have, to the contrary, long suspected that people who endure soul-crushing horrors such as losing a child take a certain solace in politics or public advocacy—in the idea that they have suffered their personal trials in order to serve the greater good.

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Take the Edwards family. John and Elizabeth both spoke of how his political career sprang from the ashes of their son Wade’s death. Did either of them exploit that tragedy at any point? Possibly. But look at the bigger picture, the death of a child. No parent ever recovers from that kind of blow. Imagine if that unbearable agony could be rendered even marginally more explicable by seeing it as part of a life path that led you to the presidency of the United States, that gave you the opportunity to make the world a little bit better for countless others who have suffered. Wouldn’t that vision drive a couple to do almost anything?

Or take John McCain. Here’s a man who endured years of brutality at the hands of the Viet Cong. While nothing can ever erase that nightmare, could some degree of peace maybe, possibly, be achieved by thinking that one’s journey through that particular circle of hell was in some way a preparation to lead the greatest nation on earth?

Which brings us back to Santorum. The senator is a devout Catholic, steeped in doctrine that says everything that happens in life is part of God’s divine plan. So even as Rick holds forth on how the exquisitely vulnerable Bella helped him realize the importance of moral leadership and the culture of life, might he not also hope for some sign that the trials his family has endured are in service to a higher purpose?

We are told that God works in mysterious ways. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop trying to make sense of the chaos.

Read More Daily Beast Contributors about the Florida Primary:Michael Tomasky: It’s Over for NewtJohn Avlon: This Race Is Far From OverMichelle Goldberg: Why Liberals Should Love NewtDavid Frum: Gingrich Knows It’s Over& More