Rick Santorum's weak finish in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary likely quashed his chances of becoming the Republican presidential nominee. Either way, he's earned my respect -- and I'm no Santorum cheerleader.
I have long been critical of his brand of Republicanism, which sees an active role for government in attempting to improve lives and foster a more moral society.
To be fair, Santorum was an early and prominent advocate for reforming Social Security and a leader in the Senate on welfare reform. But on the flip side, he backed the Medicare prescription drug plan, the bloated 2005 transportation bill and No Child Left Behind.
His big-government tendencies also have a parochial quality to them. He has supported steel tariffs, dairy subsidies and earmarks that benefited his home state of Pennsylvania.
Asked to defend his Medicare vote during last Sunday's NBC Republican debate, Santorum touted the free-market elements, such as health savings accounts. Then he said of the bill, "There was one really bad thing. We didn't pay for it, we should have paid for it and that was a mistake."
His complaint was more mechanical than philosophical. He wasn't challenging the underlying idea that government has a role in subsidizing prescription drugs for the elderly.
Despite all of these objections, and my own disagreement with him regarding same-sex marriage, I've come to respect Santorum over the course of the campaign. He has demonstrated in debates and on the campaign trail that his beliefs are genuinely held, well-thought-out and backed up by thorough knowledge on a wide range of issues.
Following him around Iowa and New Hampshire, he stood out as the candidate most willing to interact with people. At every event, he fields many questions from audience members and reporters, and provides long responses, often making him late to his next event. He can get into the arcane details of entitlement reform in one answer and then move on to the broader ideological threat posed by radical Islam.
At Santorum's victory rally in Iowa, I spoke with Rick Cowman, a supporter who told me after meeting Santorum last summer, the former senator gave him his cell phone number, and the two regularly exchange text messages. When they first met, Cowman said, "I walked away and realized I was talking to a person running for president and thought I was talking to my neighbor."
Sometimes, Santorum engages his audience too much for his own good, politically speaking. In Concord, N.H., last week, he found himself in a drawn-out exchange with college students about gay marriage. He solicited the views of those who disagreed with him and made every attempt to have a civil conversation with a hostile crowd. He calmly explained his view that marriage is between a man and a woman, because the point of the institution is to have and raise children. The immature audience booed him as he left the stage, even though he was more patient and respectful of them than any other presidential candidate would ever be.
Though it may have been off-message in what is known as a moderate state, the incident demonstrated that his views are heartfelt, not the symbolic pandering that social-conservative voters have come to expect from Republican candidates.
Also, to his credit, Santorum declined this week to join his rivals in starting left-wing style attacks on opponent Mitt Romney's career at his venture capital and private equity firm.
Santorum's brand of conservatism may be different than mine, but at least he has conviction. That's worth some praise in today's politics.
Philip Klein is senior editorial writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.