For us political junkies, this past Sunday's debate — Rick Santorum v. Bob Casey, on "Meet the Press," with Tim Russert officiating — was the equivalent of what next Sunday will be for NFL fans.

The nearly one-hour exchange was revealing. Russert's free-flowing format was a great showcase for both men's strengths and shortcomings. From my perspective, Santorum's weaknesses were readily apparent.

He was wrong again on Plan B. I found his comments on Iran to be ominous, and reminiscent of some of the sabre-rattling based on faulty data that we heard from the administration regarding Iraq four years ago.

Santorum was still unwilling to embrace a timetable for exiting Iraq. For the last year, I have been saying it's necessary to light a fire under the fannies of the Iraqis.

(Although I am often cast as a "conservative radio host" or "right wing columnist," my views fall more in the moderate wing of the Republican Party.)

Having said all this, I reached one other conclusion while watching the debate: the exchange displayed why Santorum is worthy of re-election.

That's because political viewpoints are only part of the Senate job requirement. Personal qualities are at least of equal importance, and what I find Santorum lacking on policy matters, he more than makes up for on the personal ledger.

In our poll-driven political climate, dominated by blow-dried politicians with their fingers to the wind, he stands for things. And even where he stands for things with which I disagree, I come away admiring his unwillingness to placate dissenters. What you see with Santorum is what you get. He speaks from the head and heart.

For example, Russert confronted Santorum with his near unanimous support of the administration, one that the world knows is in political free-fall. Santorum, despite several areas of disagreement with the president, did not back off and went so far as to say that he thought the president was doing a "terrific" job.

Casey, on the other hand, came across as an appeaser without assurance, a tentative generalist who is schooled on national issues only according to someone's talking points. That was evident from the opening bell.

Russert asked Casey how he would have voted on Iraq knowing what he knows today. I don't think Casey initially grasped the timing implied in the question. Even when he finally, clearly understood the question, he never answered it.

His answer to the Iraq quagmire was to demand "accountability" of the administration. His plan to defeat radical Islam was to double the size of special forces. He thinks we can "grow" ourselves out of a deficit while at the same time taxing the rich.

From the outset of this campaign, Casey has been evasive on many issues, which I initially attributed to handlers who convinced him that he could win this race by staying in the shadows. I am no longer willing to give him that pass. On the big issues, where Casey has to take a stand, he sounds very much like Santorum.

The Iraq exit strategy. Abortion. Stem cells. Guns. Samuel Alito's confirmation. Casey and Santorum are indistinguishable.

I think Casey is ethical, and well-intentioned. But he does not have Santorum's substance, nor Santorum's willingness to get his hands dirty on tough issues. Don't forget, as state treasurer, Casey did nothing with regard to the legislative pay-hike fiasco.

When all is said and done, Casey's candidacy stands for just one thing: "He's not Santorum." Which may be sufficient for the crowd that is hell-bent on Santorum's demise, but shouldn't cut it for deliberative voters, including suburban moderates who, like me, disagree with Santorum on some important issues. Even when we disagree with Santorum's votes we are still getting the power and prestige that comes with his No. 3 position in the Senate.

What's that worth? Plenty, when it comes to the nuts and bolts stuff that often matters most to Pennsylvania.

Don't take my word for it, take Ed Rendell's: "Rick Santorum has proven that he gets the job done. Time and time again he has come through."