Maggie Gallagher

On Tuesday night in Iowa, he stood before the cheering throngs like a Republican Rocky, or better yet, a latter-day Rudy suddenly lifted above his Notre Dame teammates in a fantastic storybook finish.

On Tuesday night, for the first time, Rick Santorum was a contender.

And a contender like nobody has yet seen in this race.

Santorum stood before the cameras, the living embodiment of a certain Northeastern Catholic sensibility: tough, hardworking, less than slick, often underestimated, the kind of guy who has to work hard to get respect because life is tough, not fair -- the kind of man who gets knocked down but who will always get up again.

As he recalled his immigrant coal-miner grandfather's funeral, Santorum's words sang: 'I knelt next to his coffin, and all I could do was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was: 'Those hands dug freedom for me.'

"My grandfather taught me basic things that my dad taught me, over and over again," he continued. "Work hard. Work hard. And work hard."

"What wins in America," he said, "are bold ideas, sharp contrasts, and a plan that includes everyone."

If Republicans have a candidate who can "appeal to the voters who have been left behind by a Democratic Party that wants to make them dependent instead of valuing their work, we will win this election," Santorum said.

"Those are the same people who President Obama claims cling to their guns and their Bibles," he said, then paused. "Thank God they do."

Santorum, seizing this opportunity -- his first chance to introduce himself to the broader American electorate -- finished as he began, with a salute to family, to faith against long odds, to a core overarching principle that unites his social and economic vision:

"People ask me what motivates me. I say the dignity of every human life."

"Whether it's the sanctity of life in the womb, or the dignity of every working person in America to fulfill their potential, you will have a friend in Rick Santorum."

I have not yet endorsed anyone in this presidential race. And unlike some values voters, I am not anti-Mitt Romney. Romney is a fundamentally decent, extremely capable man, who fought hard for marriage in Massachussetts. If he is the GOP nominee, I can vote for him with great good will and a clean conscience.

But when the guy who has taken more hits than any other for standing up for life and marriage fights his way with nobody's help from nowhere to, well, Tuesday night -- you have to cheer.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.