I’ll be writing about both debates and Jon Stewart’s last show for Bloomberg Politics tonight — my preview of how to get Donald Trump to rattle himself went up this morning — but because Rick Santorum didn’t make it into the big debate (and thus might not be much longer for this 2016 campaign mortal coil), I figured I’d print this while I had the chance.

One of the things I was going to do for Bloomberg this cycle was a series of publicly sourced profiles called Footprints, which I thought of as, basically, a review of the person’s public profile. I would read every word I could find about the candidate, read every speech, comb through every biography, and try to come up with a Unified Theory Of The Candidate. This was an incredibly ambitious idea — too ambitious, it turned out. There was no way to do one of these on every single one of the 22 people running for President this year. In fact, I only made it through one before we realized we’d have to bag the project. That one was Rick Santorum. So I figured since his campaign is already almost over, I’d run this somewhere before it was too late. So here it is.

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Where did Rick Santorum find God? George W. Bush found God through Billy Graham, via the bottom of a bottle. Rick Perry found God at the end of an stint in the Air Force (and, last spring, he found him again in a Texas creek). Ted Cruz found God through his dominionist father.

But Rick Santorum, generally considered the most fundamentalist national politician of the last 20 years, has told us explicitly where he found God. According to a famous New York Times profile from 2012, Santorum “was elected to the United States Senate in 1994. He likes to say he found God there.”

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Suffice it to say: This is not where God is typically found.

Santorum, one of the 17 men and women running for the Republican nomination for President, has an reputation as a holier-than-thou strict Biblical theorist, and there’s obviously truth to that: This is a guy who once said, “What kind of country do we live in where only people of non-faith can come in the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.” But Santorum’s fundamentalism, while key to his message and clearly the force that drives everything he does, is often misunderstood and misapplied. Santorum is a deeply religious man, often to an extreme that many in his party don’t even support. But it’s more complicated than that. After reading a lifetime of Santorum’s public statements and the assessments of his closest associates (and himself), watching hundreds of his speeches, even reading all of his autobiographies (four, a relatively low number for a politician), the single driving force of Santorum’s current-day religious extremism isn’t religion: It’s extremism.

Here’s the key to Santorum, from a terrific 2005 New York Times Magazine profile of Santorum. It’s a quote from Santorum’s brother Dan.

Dan Santorum, who is C.E.O. of the Professional Tennis Registry, an organization of teaching pros, said he considered his brother’s deepening involvement in religion to be a function of his personality — specifically, of his almost congenital inability to do anything halfheartedly. ‘’Rick has always been that way, in anything he has ever done,’’ he said. ‘’Card games. Board games. Grades. Whatever it is he’s doing, he’s completely caught up in it. We were, for the time, good practicing Catholics, but Rick took it further.’’

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This is what Santorum has always done: He takes it further. He takes every issue to its logical extreme, except it doesn’t seem extreme to him at all. You can argue about contraception, but don’t worry, he has already settled it for you. “It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Santorum finds answers in religion … but only the theoretical unshakable parts, not the practical, forgiving, real-world parts. These are the actions of a man who is moral, sure, but that’s only part of it: They’re really more the actions who has, from the very beginning, been certain that he is right. The positions can be filled in, usually by religion: The conviction is what matters.

To watch him speak, in a formal setting, in a debate, in front of large crowds, is to see a man absolutely unshakable in his convictions, to the point that there’s a little part of him that sort of can’t believe he even has to say all of this to you people. He’s suspicious in front of more traditional born-again Christians, the ones with doubt, the ones who lived a live of sin before turning to Jesus. Here he is at the Iowa Thanksgiving Forum hosted by Frank Luntz in November 2011. He’s sitting in between Michele Bachman and Rick Perry, two born-againers, and he can barely contain his impatience. He’s heard their stories before. Their doubt isn’t what makes them relatable; it’s what makes them weak. He was a Christian before it was cool to be a Christian. (Conversation begins at 41:30.)

One irony of this, of course, is that Santorum isn’t a fundamentalist Christian at all: He’s a deeply devout Catholic. (A fact that most fundamentalist voters don’t even know about him; a 2012 Pew poll found that only a third of Republican primary voters even knew he was Catholic. Also: Catholics don’t like him. He actually lost Catholics to Romney in 2012, which is rather insane if you think about it.) But the more interesting irony is something that his brother gets at above: Religion has only become the motor behind Santorum since he entered the public square.

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In college at Penn State, Santorum was known more for his love of sports and conservative politics than any religious fervor; he smoked pot and hosted regular keggers at his fraternity house. (He actually looked kind of cool, for Rick Santorum, anyway. A few years earlier, he was more of a McLovin guy.) A 2012 New Republic story featured most of his teachers and classmates a little bit stunned that the man they knew almost exclusively as a shrewd political operator had become such a public Man of God; one professor said he’d never had a student so blindly ambitious.” His 1990 campaign for the House, the one that brought him into public service for the first time, was not based around religion at all; at one point, he even argued against prayer in schools, the exact opposite of his whole guiding philosophy as a national politician. A 1995 Philadelphia magazine piece — which features a rather damning anecdote that Santorum was obsessed with ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman – paints him the sort of guy who would ask girls out by saying, “How’d you like to go out with a governor?” When he was elected to the Senate in 1994 on the back of the Gingrich revolution in mostly blue Pennsylvania, God was in the background there too: He told a pro-life forum that his faith “wasn’t at the center of my life” then.

What was the center of his life was that ambition. Like many politicians, Santorum’s entire adult life has been in pursuit of public office. He has had three major phases in his life: Before elected office, elected office, and after elected office. He was different in each stage, but elected office is the one constant, as it tends to be. That’s always the point. He worked for a firm after graduating from law school – once arguing that the WWE (then the WWF) should be allowed to let its wrestlers use whatever steroids it saw fit — but was widely considered to be just using the firm as a stepping stone to a political career.

(As a side note, now that I’ve brought up wrestling, here, apropos of nothing, is a campaign ad Santorum made in 2006 that features him punching out a professional wrestler.)

His ambition, and the help of his firm, led him to run for the House at the age of 32, and he won, and this is basically the end of Rick Santorum, human person. After that he is The Prodigy, one of the youngest Congressmen of the 20th Century and an entirely political animal. At this point, Santorum’s natural pugnaciousness and certainty becomes a potent vessel that simply needs to be filled. He finds it in religion. More specifically, he finds it in his wife.

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Santorum met Karen Garver, two years before his Senate race, in 1988, when she was working as a neonatal nurse for a doctor named Dr. Tom Allen, whom she also had been romantically involved with for six years. When they started dating, Allen wasn’t only a popular Pittsburgh liberal, he wasn’t only 62 years old (Karen was 21), he wasn’t only Karen’s landlord when they met and began dating and working together … he was also a well-known abortion provider. The relationship, as you might suspect, was not popular with Garver’s family, particularly her pediatrician father, a strong Catholic who had spoken publicly about the evils of abortion. Rick, for all his Penn State frat-boy scruff, was far more preferable.

Once Rick met Karen, their lives both changed, almost immediately. They start shooting out children – just 25 years later, they have seven, not including their premature stillborn son Gabriel, whom they famously took home from the hospital with them for a night – and Santorum begins taking his hardline religious stances, most notably on abortion, an issue he credits Karen’s father with turning him around on. The ambition has a vessel. The movement – Santorum’s movement, his natural extremism – finally has a cause.

And he becomes a member of the House at 32 years old. At 36, he’s a Senator, finding God. He’ll stay in Washington, in elected office, for the next 26 years.

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The thing about prodigies is that they get older. Prodigies are enticing because their future seems limitless, full of infinite possibilities. Age has a way of putting limits on those possibilities. Santorum was swept into the Senate at the dawn of the age of the Christian Right, and he was a natural posterboy for the cause. But there’s always a younger fish.

Santorum kept finding ways to take things too far. He couldn’t just investigate a banking scandal; he had to be part of the Gang of Seven, going so hard after his colleagues in a fashion so aggressive that many never forgave him. He couldn’t just be skeptical of evolution: He had to try to sneak in the famous Santorum Amendment, which would have required the teaching of intelligent design in public school, into No Child Left Behind. He couldn’t just be against gay marriage; he had to compare gay life to “man-on-dog.” He couldn’t just be against euthanasia; he had to claim that “half of all euthanizations in Holland were involuntary,” which was very far from true. He couldn’t just criticize modern feminism and pro-choice advocates; he had to, in his book “It Takes A Family,” argue that pro-choicers were “German Nazis” and that radical feminism had destroyed the American family. He would continue this in his 2012 Presidential campaign. He couldn’t just be about blurring the line between church and state; he had to say he wanted to “ban” secularism. He couldn’t just support waterboarding; he had to say, “John McCain doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works.” He couldn’t just say that the porn industry needed more regulation; he had to say, “the Obama Department of Justice seems to favor pornographers over children and families.” (Which seems unlikely.)

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(Another side note, now that we’re talking about pornography: Here is video of the time that Santorum joked on Don Imus’ radio show about Imus’ wife attempting to coerce Santorum into a threesome.)

Imus now hates Santorum and once held a debate on his show as to whether Santorum’s nickname should be “Butt Juice” or “Eye Pus.” So the joke might not have gone over well.)

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But by the time there was an Obama administration to accuse of liking Ron Jeremy more than cute kids and puppies, Santorum was outside of elected office for the first time since he was that scrappy 32-year-old who still was unsure how powerfully he felt about abortion. (He felt powerfully, as it turned out.) If Santorum had been born and raised in, say, Kansas, or Georgia, he might have been a Senator for 50 years, free to indulge every whim and extremist thought he had. But he lived in Pennsylvania, a blue state that started to tire of having one of their two Senators so notorious nationally that his name was a synonym for “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” Despite the wrestling ad above, Santorum was unable to hang onto his Senate seat, losing to Bob Casey in 2006. Extremism only works as electoral politics, on a local level, if enough people locally agree with you. Pennsylvania was the wrong state for that. For all the talk of Jeb Bush’s supposed rustiness in the political arena, Santorum has not actually won a general election this century.

But he hasn’t had to, because his loss led to the third stage of Santorum’s career, probably the truest expression of his beliefs and worldview, Peak Santorum: Making money and running for President. Without having to appeal to those ditherers in Pennsylvania, Santorum has been able to find success and importance – most notably, of course, winning the Iowa caucus in 2012, though no one seemed to know he’d won at the time – by finding people who are as willing to go as far with their positions as he is. You can’t make a quorum with them, but you can find enough of them to get a spot at the table. And when you don’t need to win, you can let your freak flag fly. “President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob?” Sure! “[Same sex marriage” is an issue just like 9/11?” Go for it, Rick. This is the direction he was already heading: Going as far as he can, just to see how many people with go with him. It turns out: Not enough to win, but enough to matter.

The only real downside to this for Santorum in 2016 is that, well, people tend to like their extremism from people who are young and, more important, new. If Rick Santorum says that nobody chooses to be gay, well, that’s our Rick. But if Ben Carson or Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee says it … hey, who’s that guy? I like the cut of his jib. Carson is taking Santorum’s schtick – again — but the thing about schtick is that nobody knows it’s schtick if they haven’t seen it before. They’ve seen Santorum before. They know who he is. You can only be so extreme when people consider you part of the fabric. It’s that old joke about aging punk rockers: If they were that punk, they wouldn’t still be alive.

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You can see Santorum start to recognize this. One of his two “I’m exploring a run for President by writing a book” books was actually a wrenching exploration of his own self-doubt about his disabled daughter Bella, co-written with Karen. (Who spends a good section of the book, interestingly, criticizing Rick for giving up hope on Bella when doctors said she wouldn’t survive.) He’s pivoting on gay marriage, not supporting it but not “emphasizing” it, focusing instead on immigration. The whole message this time will be one of Blue Collar Conservatism, which is the name of his other “I’m exploring a run for President by writing a book” book, something he says he’s always tried to focus on, if it weren’t for all the man-on-dog headlines that keep getting in the way. He says the last campaign was full of “crazy stuff that doesn’t have to do with anything.” (This line of thought, that social debates are getting in the way of actual debate, echoes the Pope’s recent comments about contraception and abortion and gay marriage, even though this is not clearly not Santorum’s favorite Pope.)

But does the world need a “softer” Rick Santorum? Is such a character conceivable, even to himself? If you take away the extremist Rick Santorum, the man who has all the answers if you’ll just listen, what do you have? If people don’t want to hear an old punk rocker sing his old hits, they definitely don’t want to hear that punk rocker start crooning showtunes. They can make Muzak out of the Sex Pistols now. But lord does no one want that.

Rick Santorum was a prodigy, until he became part of the establishment … which turned him into, inevitably, background noise. Eventually, extreme becomes rote. Eventually, extreme isn’t enough. The challenge for Santorum in 2016 isn’t trying to recapture the 2012 magic. It’s making people forget 2012 … and then somehow creating a sort of new magic. You can only ring that extreme bell so many times. It’s a good thing Santorum found God in the Senate. Because, from all those years, God is really all he has left to show for it.