(TIME) — One evening in Iowa last October, as autumn trudged toward winter, I watched Rick Santorum work a huge crowd of 7 civilians in the back room of a tavern, in a very small town. It was his final stop of the day, well past 9 p.m., but he answered every last question those people had and even asked a few himself. When it was over, he and I chatted for a few minutes about the campaign and about our families. I’d gotten to know Santorum back in the 1990s, when I wrote a piece in the New Yorker about the death of his son Gabriel, two hours after his birth, and about the health risks that pregnancy had posed for Santorum’s wife, Karen. Now I found myself telling Santorum about my mother, who was entering the last weeks of her life, and some of the difficult decisions I’d made. He talked about the teachings of his church on those issues. It was a good conversation, the sort I don’t have with many politicians.
People often ask me why I like Santorum, even though we disagree–sometimes vehemently–on almost every possible issue. It is because he’s the sort of guy with whom you can have a conversation about your mother dying, or a civil discussion about the most heated policy issue. (That night in Iowa we also talked about Iran, where our differences are pretty stark.) I have found him to always be open and candid, and willing to answer any question. And that is how he waged his campaign, in the most labor intensive way imaginable, 6 or 8 town meetings per day in Iowa–real town meetings, not a canned speech and a question or two. He earned the prominence he achieved in the race.