Rick Santorum’s distinctive debate performance last night surely scored points with conservative voters who’ve craved an attack on Romneycare from anyone on the GOP debate stage, but it might not have come soon enough to significantly alter the results of the South Carolina primary tomorrow.

Fortunately for his fans, Santorum’s performance in the Palmetto State won’t necessarily be determinative for the former Pennsylvania senator. It’s an important stop on the map, but it won’t be the last stop for the candidate who brands himself “steady” and is willing to work however hard to share his conservative message with potential supporters.

In an exclusive interview today for an upcoming feature in Townhall magazine, Santorum told me he plans to take it one state at a time, to continue to build name recognition for himself, to differentiate himself from the other remaining candidates and, ultimately, to win the nomination.

“We’re gonna take it a state at a time and we think we can be competitive — as we have been — in every state,” Santorum said. “We’ve been put in the position now where we can continue to become better-known. We’re still by far the least known of all the candidates. Our opportunity is to differentiate ourselves as we started to do last night, and we’ll see how that process works to put us in a position where we can start to be one-on-one with one other candidate and win this race.”

The Washington Times corroborates what Santorum told me — that, whatever happens tomorrow, Santorum plans to keep on keepin’ on:

Rick Santorum said Friday he will continue his campaign on into Florida regardless of how he does this weekend in South Carolina’s primary, saying the last 24 hours have been so dramatic they could alter the race in fundamental way.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who on Thursday learned he had actually won Iowa’s caucuses over front-runner Mitt Romney, said he also now has the financial resources to continue to campaign in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31, and beyond.

And he said he wants to see how Thursday’s other events — Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s withdrawal from the race, and new allegations of marital and temperament problems with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — play out.

“We’re going forward. This race has just transformed itself in the last 24 hours. I’m not too sure whether that will shake out and show by Saturday,” he told C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program. “We feel very good that we can go down there and be competitive, and frankly beyond that.”

In other words, pundits might spin this as a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but Santorum is far from out of it. As he put it to me, “There’ve been two states and we won one of them.”

As the differentiation begins — he hammered home the point that the GOP will lose the chance to sharply contrast a conservative vision with Obama’s vision if we nominate either candidate who supported an individual health care mandate and the Wall Street bailouts — Santorum’s popularity among conservatives should only grow. One state at a time.

For more from my interview with Santorum, watch today’s edition of The Ed Morrissey Show and be sure to pick up a copy of the March edition of Townhall magazine!