‘A Family Decision’

by Robert Costa

“It wasn’t easy,” says Mike Biundo, Rick Santorum’s campaign manager, in a phone call this afternoon, moments after his boss announced his departure from the Republican presidential race. “But it was a family decision,” he says, and for the former Pennsylvania senator, that made it easy.

Santorum spent the weekend in northern Virginia, mostly at the hospital with his wife, Karen, as they cared for their young daughter, Bella, who has a severe chromosomal disorder. Bella, to the family’s relief, was released on Monday night. By then, however, the decision had already been made.

“With Bella in the hospital and it being Easter weekend, it became a time for reflection and prayers,” Biundo says. Santorum huddled with his children, he spoke with a handful of senior advisers. Beyond that, he kept mum, and there was a strong push within the inner circle to keep the decision from leaking.

“We thought long and hard about it,” Biundo says. “We took a look at the delegate math and the path forward.” Many senior aides were ready to make a serious play for Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state. Santorum, Biundo says, appreciated their commitment, but “he told everyone that his first responsibility has always been to his family, so it’s time to suspend things.”

There wasn’t any internal disagreement, Biundo says. John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist, was on the same page as the senator. They both saw many challenges ahead, but in light of Bella’s situation, the campaign’s persistence began to involve more than cold political math. It wasn’t a question of “fire in the belly,” he says, but of making the right choice — for the family, for the campaign, for the conservative movement, and for the party.

“He’s a father first,” says Biundo, who bonded with the senator last year as both of their daughters battled health problems. “I consider him a friend and will always be there for him if he needs me. This chapter is over, but as he said today, the game’s not over. He’ll be out there, campaigning to get Republican majorities in Congress and to support the nominee. He’s focused on getting Barack Obama out of the White House. He’s not going away.”

Reflecting on the run, Biundo says he’ll have more to say in the coming days, once the media chaos about today’s news settles down. But for now, he says, he can say that he leaves the presidential fray more optimistic than when he entered.

“There’s a lot to be proud of,” he says. “This proves that grassroots politics still works in this country. We were obviously vastly outspent in every contest. What the senator has shown is that with the right message and the right work ethic, which he displayed going through Iowa’s 99 counties and since then, that somebody can still come from behind, work hard, and achieve big things.”

Santorum, he adds, connected on the phone with Romney earlier today and he expects the senator to meet with Romney, in person, sometime soon.

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