Sometimes conservatives tick me off. Why? I've written on this before: Conservatives spend far too little time actually crediting fellow conservatives in the arena who do the hard work of legislating, of getting real things done. Conservatives these days seem to rush to lionize people who talk a good game, who have a flair for catchy phrases, who rabble-rouse (in a good way), who specialize in media manipulation. Those are important political skills, to be sure. But conservatives of all people should value actual performance, should value the practical skills that make government work while keeping it limited.
Today, one of those conservative workers -- who also is excellent on his feet in debates -- entered the campaign for president. Rick Santorum for some reason gets treated as if he were a fringe player on Capitol Hill for 16 years, playing to the right wing (mostly) in a sort of gadfly role. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a guy who rose to the fourth ranking position in the Republican Senate as Conference Chairman, and who all conservatives in Washington knew was THE "go to guy" within leadership whenever leadership wasn't paying enough heed to conservative views. Santorum wouldn't just talk a good game; he would actually go into leadership meetings and fight the good fight. There are conservative judges right now who would not be on the bench if it weren't for Santorum. There are abortion restrictions in law that wouldn't be there without Santorum. And, lest we forget the single most successful major federal governmental programmatic reform of the past half-century, it was Santorum who was the lead Senate sponsor of welfare reform in 1996. Yes, the House took the lead in many ways in the welfare reform effort (with Florida's Clay Shaw and Texas' Bill Archer never getting the credit they deserved for their work on it), but it takes two chambers to tango. It was Santorum who led the way in the Senate. This was not a gadfly; this was an effective legislator at work. Santorum also was a conservative leader on foreign policy, and a key supporter of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Santorum is an able and effective campaigner against incumbents, having upset incumbents to win in a tough House district in 1990 and in a tough state for the Senate in 1994. He also won re-election in 2000 against the odds, taking Pennsylvania by about seven percentage points even as GW Bush lost the state at the head of the ticket.
By any SERIOUS standard of who should be treated as a top-tier candidate, on the merits, Santorum qualifies.
Finally, if one's standard is authenticity -- of being the same person in private as in public, of not being a calculating political BSer -- only Herman Cain, of the apparent field, can fully join Santorum on the podium.
So conservatives should heartily welcome Santorum to the race. And they should expect him to punch well above the political weight for which the cognoscenti credit him.