For we political junkies, this past Sunday's debate was the equivalent of what next Sunday will be for NFL fans. Santorum v. Casey, on Meet the Press, with Tim Russert officiating. The expectations were high but it did not disappoint. The nearly one-hour exchange was very revealing. Russert's free-flowing format was a great showcase for both men's strengths and their shortcomings. From my perspective, Santorum's weaknesses were readily apparent.
Once again, he was wrong on Plan B.
I found his comments on Iran to be ominous, and reminiscent of some of the saber rattling based on faulty data that we heard from the Administration regarding Iraq four years ago.
And speaking of Iraq, Santorum was still unwilling to embrace a timetable for exiting, which for at least the last year, I have been saying is necessary to light a fire under the fannies of the Iraqis and let them know the light at end of the tunnel is in sight one way or another.
Had the subjects come up, I would no doubt have also disagreed with whatever Santorum would have said about Terri Schiavo and stem cells too.
(Don't be surprised. Although I am often cast by others as a "conservative radio host" or "right wing columnist", the truth is that my views fall more in the moderate wing of the Republican Party, and I have many areas of sharp disagreement with Rick Santorum.)
Having said all this, I reached one other conclusion while watching the debate between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey - the exchange displayed why Rick Santorum IS worthy of re-election in this contest.
That's because political viewpoints are only part of the Senate job requirement. Personal qualities are at least of equal importance, and what I find Santorum lacking on policy matters, he more than makes up for on the personal ledger.
Rick Santorum is unique. He's a man of rare substance and conviction.
In our poll-driven political climate, dominated by blow-dried politicians with their fingers to the wind, he stands for things. And even where he stands for things with which I disagree, I come away admiring his unwillingness to placate dissenters by telling us words that we want to hear. What you see with Santorum, is what you get. He speaks from the head and heart.
Here's an example of what I am talking about. Tim Russert confronted Santorum with his near unanimous support of the Administration, an Administration that the world knows is in political free-fall. Santorum, having already indicated several areas of disagreement with the President, nevertheless did not back off and went so far as to say that he thought the President was doing a "terrific" job.
Look, I continue to like George W. Bush, the man, far more than most. I think the president's heart is in the right place even when his head isn't. But "terrific" is not a word I would use to describe his effort, particularly if I were running for the U.S. Senate. But Rick Santorum gave what was for him an honest answer to a difficult question. He didn't look at the president's approval rating. He didn't duck. He offered no sound byte. And I find his honesty refreshing amid all the BS and spin that comes out of D.C.
Bob Casey, on the other hand, came across as an appeaser without assurance - a tentative generalist who is schooled on national issues only according to someone's talking points. That was evident from the opening bell.
The first debate in what is the hottest race in the country began with what should have been a lay-up. Tim Russert asking Casey how he would have voted on Iraq knowing what he knows today. I don't think Casey initially grasped the timing implied in the question. I attribute that to jitters, which is certainly understandable, given the anticipation that surrounded this showdown. But then there was a back and forth with Russert. Even when he finally, clearly understood the question - Casey never answered it.
And that's not all.
His answer to the Iraq quagmire was to demand "accountability" of the Administration.
His plan to defeat radical Islam was to double the size of special forces.
He thinks we can "grow" ourselves out of a deficit while at the same time taxing the rich.
All ill-defined, rudimentary stuff. No thinking outside the box. No evidence of having studied and comprehended the issues.
From the outset of this campaign, Bob Casey has been evasive on many issues, which I initially attributed to handlers who convinced him that he could win this race by staying in the shadows. I am no longer willing to give him that pass. And on the big issues, where Casey has had no choice but to take a stand, he sounds very much like Rick Santorum.
Take the Iraq exit strategy. Abortion. Stem Cells. Guns. The Samuel Alito confirmation. Casey and Santorum are indistinguishable.
I am not out to cheap shot Bob Casey. The Casey family are good people. I think Bob Casey is ethical, and well-intentioned. But he does not have Santorum's substance where it matters. Nor does he have Santorum's willingness to get his hands dirty on tough issues. Let's not forget, Bob Casey, as the state Treasurer, did nothing with regard to the legislative pay hike fiasco.
When all is said and done, Bob Casey's candidacy stands for just one thing: "he's not Rick Santorum". Which may be sufficient for the small but hatriolic crowd that is hell-bent on Santorum's demise, but shouldn't cut it for any deliberative voters, including suburban moderates who, like me, disagree with Santorum on some important issues. Remember that even when Santorum votes in a manner with which we disagree, we are still getting the power and prestige that comes with his No. 3 position in the Senate.
What's that worth? Plenty, when it comes to the nuts and bolts stuff that often matters most to Pennsylvania. Don't take my word for it, take Ed Rendell's: "Rick Santorum has proven that he gets the job done. Time and time again he has come through."