For quite some time, Rick Santorum has billed his presidential bid as “The Little Engine That Could” campaign. Still far behind in the polls in Iowa and elsewhere, the former Pennsylvania senator nevertheless retains an optimistic outlook. He likes his chances in the Hawkeye State — and all across the country.

“We obviously are planning to win here in Iowa,” Santorum said this afternoon on a conference call with bloggers. “We don’t have to win. We’re not like some of the other candidates who have put all their eggs in one basket. [But] we have to do well here. We have to finish in or near the money. … I’m convinced that’s happening and it will happen and I feel very confident that we’ll have a bounce coming out of Iowa that will lead to a surprise finish in New Hampshire. Then, off to the races.”

In a primary best characterized as a revolving two-man race between Mitt Romney and the latest anti-Mitt, the most conservative candidate in the race — save Michele Bachmann — has somehow not managed to project himself as an appealing counterpoint to the former Massachusetts governor. But Santorum is untroubled by that fact.

“We’re patient,” he said. “We’ll let everybody else have their fling.”

He likens himself to an initially-overlooked guy at a dance hall. At first, the girls flock to the smoothest and handsomest fellows, Santorum explains, but, eventually, when they want to take a man home to meet Mom and Dad, they turn to a different kind of dance partner. In the end, a woman wants to marry a guy who’s steady and serious, who believes what he says he believes and who acts accordingly. Similarly, voters want a nominee they can trust to faithfully uphold conservative principles domestically and internationally, socially and fiscally. That candidate, Santorum says, is him.

“I think we need to elect a leader who understands these issues and is willing to go out and fight for them, as well as the economic issues that are important to our country,” he said. “I’m concerned if we don’t have anybody in this race who is a full-spectrum, three-stooled Reagan Republican who has the passion not just to cut government, not just to cut taxes, but to stand up for the American family and fight radical Islamism and make sure that America is free and safe and prosperous and morally decent and good and that will be blessed by God. That’s what I believe. That’s why I’m here and I believe the people of Iowa have begun to recognize that.”

Throughout the course of the call, Santorum spoke fluidly about a wide variety of topics, from his signature partial-birth abortion ban to the need to open up U.S. lands to drill for oil to (this won my heart!) ecumenism. As I listened to him speak, with audible sincerity and earnestness, I couldn’t help but wonder why his candidacy hasn’t taken off. Here is someone whose betrayals of conservatism barely fill a sentence. He liked “No Child Left Behind” and Medicare Part D. OK. I don’t like either of those positions, but they pale in comparison to the betrayals Gingrich and Romney have delivered to the conservative movement.

And I completely, 100 percent agree with Santorum when he says, “You can’t have a strong economy without strong families.” I’ve never understood the reluctance to address social issues. Unless we address them, we’ll never truly be able to break the cycle of dependence on government. In some respects, Santorum is the only candidate not living in a fantasy of his own making — that the economy operates outside of cultural and societal forces. Sure, the market is remarkably impersonal and dispassionate, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t still essentially human.

Whatever happens in Iowa, I’ll say of Rick Santorum what I repeatedly say of Michele Bachmann: I’m happy he’s in the race because he says what needs to be said.