I rode across Washington today with Rick Santorum. He’d just finished a speech for the Values Voter Summit and an interview with ABC’s Jon Karl. An aide drove us over to Fox for his next interview. As we left the hotel Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and her entourage entered. The two pols greeted each other cheerfully. But aside from the smiles Bachmann is one of several candidates whose presence in Iowa is an impediment to Santorum’s progress in the race.

He’s been slogging it out in early primary states while one after another of his competitors have zoomed to the top of the polls and then collapsed. He tells me that there have been “a lot of trial balloons and flavors of the month. At some point we knew voters would sit down, decide who they really want for president.” He jokes. “We hope that’s sooner rather than later.” He rejects the idea that voters are planted in stone,” given the wild swings in support. He hasn’t caught fire like the telegenic Herman Cain. He says candidly: “As my wife says I can be better.” He recognizes that he’s sometimes too “hot” for TV. “I need to smile more, tone down the intensity.” He concedes he used to be one of the “worst poker players” since he wears his emotions on his sleeve. That is the sort intensity that you rarely see in manicured pols who learn to smile placidly when their opponents say perfectly ludicrous things.

He’s a serious guy (quoting Edmund Burke or John Adams to make a point). It’s clear he’s a bit incredulous about some of his competitors’ success and/or lack of substance. As for Herman Cain, he emphasizes “I’m not saying he isn’t smart or talented. He is both those things.” But nevertheless he is blunt that Cain’s lack of any elective experience (he lost in his only outing, Santorum points out) increases the risks he will falter in the campaign. “This is not easy,” Santorum says of the primary process pointing to the intensity, the scrutiny, the need for fluency on the issues and the ups and downs of a long race. “Could I go and run Godfather’s Pizza?”

But the lack of any elective experience Santorum thinks is a serious handicap. He says, “We just went through someone almost brand new. It hasn’t worked out so well, especially on the international stage.”

He’s also highly critical of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. In order to avoid a heavy burden on middle income and working poor, Santorum says, “What he’s going to have to do is pre-bates and rebates and exclusions and deductions. Then how do you have 9-9-9?” He is also staunchly opposed to a national sales tax. “It’s a serious plan because it seriously gives the federal government another way to take your money. When I hear 9-9-9, I think 9-11.” He says it’s inconceivable the rate would remain at 9 percent.

He’s been tagged as a “social conservative.” But in fact he’s a conservative who sees values at the core of policies. He says the only way to have limited government is to “live good and virtuous lives.” Unless schools, churches and families play their role in shaping our values and behavior, government will remain large and intrusive.

His moral perspective also infuses his views on foreign policy. On Iran he points to the list of horrors: spinning centrifuges, hanging gays and repressing minorities. Showing that tell-tale intensity, his voice rises. “And we say nothing and don’t point out the evil that is that regime.” He criticizes the lack of consequences enacted for Iran’s killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. As for Syria, he says of Obama’s policy, “ ‘He has to go.’ What does that mean? The president of the United States can’t say that and then, ‘When’s my tee time?’ ”

On economic matters he faults more than the president’s policies for the sputtering economy. “It is the abject hostility to the business community” that is so destructive, he says. He thinks that, like FDR, Obama is simply playing the “class warfare” game in order to hold power in awful economic times. He says we shouldn’t be surprised he talks about allowing banks only a “certain amount of profit.” As he points out in Obamacare, the government specified exactly how much of the insurance companies’ revenue is supposed to be spent on benefit claims.

As we get closer to the Fox studios, the conversation turns to the Iowa caucuses. He doesn’t need to win, but he does need to finish ahead of some of the bigger names to prove his staying power. He’s irate that primary dates and the caucuses may all be moved up to early January. News reports have suggested that the Romney and Perry camps have colluded to shift the dates forward. Florida moved up to Jan. 31 and now Nevada is talking about a Jan. 14 date, pushing Iowa’s caucuses potentially into December. (A Romney spokesman e-mails me, “Governor Romney is running a national campaign and is prepared to compete in every state. He believes that Iowa’s first in-the-nation caucus and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary should be preserved, and he looks forward to competing in every other nominating contest — whenever they are scheduled. To be clear, states determine when their contests will be held. Gov. Romney has always supported Nevada’s status as an early nominating contest.”) Santorum says such a calendar would represent a “shockingly brazen” attempt to shut out lesser known candidates.

Santorum describes himself as a “conviction conservative.” He explains, “I see how all of it fits together in a common-sense way.” In his view conservatism is the “stewardship of patrimony.” That’s an erudite way of putting the notion that conservatism is a disposition more than an ideology, the recognition and modern application of time-tested values. It’s ironic that within the Republican field, he is perhaps the only one to think in these grander thematic terms. Perry avoids any serious policy discussion. Romney is about solving a series of problems. Cain is about applying a business perspective to government. But is there an appetite for a more lofty vision that weaves conservative principles into policy problems and tells the audience that their own virtue is what makes limited government possible? Perhaps in the up-close inspection that goes on in the early primary states that passion will come through and voters will see a serious conservative. But time is running out, too fast for his tastes.