I'm here today to praise Rick Santorum.

Hey, somebody has to do it. Pennsylvania's home boy has been stumping the early Republican primary states for a year now, trying to ignite a nascent presidential bid, but apparently his kindling is wet.

Santorum has trekked to New Hampshire 10 times, yet he stands at 1 percent in a new statewide poll. When the New Hampshire Republican Party recently surveyed its members about 2012, Santorum got fewer votes than Herman Cain, the ex-CEO of Godfather's Pizza. It's not often that a seasoned politician finishes behind a guy whose specialty is mozzarella.

Meanwhile, in another straw poll last week, Santorum pulled 2 percent of the vote at a national conservative convention, after delivering a flat speech to a half-filled room. He tied the pizza mogul. All told, Santorum's life span as a presidential hopeful may approximate that of the average fruit fly - as befits a senator who was heaved from office in 2006 by a margin of 18 percentage points - the worst incumbent senatorial defeat since 1980.

Nevertheless, I want to compliment Santorum for at least having the guts to speak the truth about the nouveau riche media celebrity who once reigned for half a term as governor of Alaska.

On a radio show last week, Santorum was asked to comment on Sarah Palin's decision to skip the conservative convention. (She skips a lot of big events.) Santorum replied in part: "I have a feeling she has some demands on her time. And a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them." Moments later, he reiterated that Palin has "other business opportunities that may be in conflict with what she was asked to do."

If you're not fixated on the nuances of Republican politics, Santorum's remarks probably seem benign. But if you're a Palin acolyte, what he said was tantamount to blasphemy. It's virtual code among Republican regulars that she shall never be criticized, that her various incoherencies remain unchallenged, that her Garboesque absences from the political circuit remain unquestioned.

Santorum broke the code. He dared to suggest that Palin is more interested in financially leveraging her instant fame than appearing for free at political forums staged by the party faithful. Santorum called her out.

Granted, for his long-shot presidential bid to have any chance, he must sell himself to social and religious conservatives in the early-voting primary and caucus states, particularly Iowa and South Carolina. Palin currently dominates the right-wing market. Santorum needs to dislodge her. He has tried before; back in December 2009, he told ABC News that Palin has "done some things that, you know, certainly are going to cause her to have to do some explaining, if she runs for president."

What better way to raise his national profile than to go after the party's top celebrity and reap the attendant publicity? It must gall him to see Palin cashing in on the "business opportunities" of insta-fame. There he was, busting his hump in Washington for 16 years on behalf of conservative causes, and yet he's stuck at the nadir in Republican polls - whereas she soars into the stratosphere having done squat for the movement. He has been a Fox News commentator, just like Palin - but Fox didn't build him a home studio.

I'll admit, however, that Santorum's whack at Palin was verbally clumsy. (No surprise there; this is the guy who once equated gay sex with "man on dog.") Santorum suggested, in last week's radio interview, that Palin also passed up the conservative convention because she's weighed down by family. As he put it, "I'm not the mother to all these kids" - which didn't come off too well, because he has a large family, too. He seemed to be implying that he had no such encumbrance because he was a man.

That's how Palin interpreted his remark. She fired back on Fox News, declaring, "I will not call him the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal" - while doing exactly that.

Still, Santorum should get points for his core argument. He essentially said that anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a national political figure should have to prove his or her credentials, in public and under scrutiny. No exceptions. Let us praise his political courage-

But wait. Within 24 hours, Santorum felt compelled to walk it back. On Fox News, he declared: "I like Sarah Palin. My wife and I both like Sarah Palin." He said he loved Palin's reality show. He said he was a dutiful dad; in fact, "I changed three diapers today."

I feel bad for the guy. He tried to commit candor, but apparently the heat from the Palinites got too intense. Meanwhile, he's still stuck in the low single digits. Maybe Herman Cain should take pity and send him a pizza.

Contact Dick Polman