I've had a few encounters with former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum over the years, in Pennsylvania, in Delaware, and in Washington. Now a candidate for president who nearly beat front runner Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Santorum has on every occasion impressed as someone with a clear understanding of what he believes, and a readiness, almost a combativeness, in defending those beliefs against all challenges.

When he visited Temple Law School as Pennsylvania's junior U.S. senator to answer questions from students, he left a clear impression with me that he wouldn't give an inch on his beliefs that the self-reliant family is the essential building block of society, that children do best with both a mother and a father, and that dependence on government handouts weakens families.

When a student expressed concerns about a bar association finding of inadequate government support for legal aid for the poor, Santorum turned the question around by asking, "If the bar association is concerned about inadequate support for legal aid, why doesn't the bar association do something about it? Why not organize its members to provide volunteer legal assistance?"

Santorum's political liability is usually identified as his failure to get himself re-elected to the U.S. Senate from swing state Pennsylvania despite the advantages of being a two-term incumbent. His 2006 loss to current U.S. Senator Bob Casey was not close. He lost by almost 18%, the biggest loss by an incumbent U.S. senator in a quarter century, and the largest loss by an incumbent Republican U.S. senator since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 mandating direct election of U.S. senators.

But as I recall only too well, 2006 was the worst possible year to run as a Republican. The Republican-instigated invasion of Iraq had gone terribly wrong, and national regret over the election and re-election of President George W. Bush was at its peak. Voters were looking for a way, any way, to vote against the Republicans.

Santorum's 2006 challenger, Bob Casey, was an especially attractive candidate, a proven vote-getter for statewide office, with a great political name shared with his father, a former two-term Pennsylvania governor, and a shared commitment with his father to the pro-life, anti-abortion cause, which diluted the enthusiasm of Santorum's base. For those reasons, Santorum is entitled to some mitigation of the significance of his re-election loss in Pennsylvania in 2006.

I respect Santorum's willingness to clearly articulate and defend his views even on controversial social issues. He has demonstrated the necessary "fire in the belly" by remaining in the race in the face of long odds and media ridicule. With his success in Iowa, I expect him to stay in the race for the Republican nomination right up to the August convention in Tampa, Florida.

But I personally couldn't support him because of his endorsement of discrimination against fellow citizens who happen to be gay, and also because of his objection to allowing American women to make medical choices for themselves after consulting their own physicians.

While every American is entitled to embrace his or her own religious views, no American should be able to impose those views on other Americans who have differing or no religious views at all. I believe that America is evolving and becoming more open to full and equal rights for all, including gay Americans, and that Americans of different religious views increasingly believe that government should not stand between a woman seeking medical advice and treatment and her physician.

While there is evidently still a place for Rick Santorum in the American political process in 2012, I believe it only exists on the extreme fringe of the minority political party. Am I right? That's why we hold elections.

Here's a recent example of Rick Santorum's willingness to advocate and defend the denial of marriage rights to gay Americans before a hostile college audience: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/santorum-gets-into-testy-debate-on-gay-marriage/?hp .