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Santorum facing obstacles in reelection bid

Sen. Rick Santorum, the third-highest GOP leader in the Senate, faces an unusually imposing set of challenges in his bid for re-election this year, critics say.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Everything was in place for the photo op. Sen. Rick Santorum joined an assembly line of volunteers boxing up dry goods at a warehouse that distributes food to thousands of low-income Pennsylvanians.

But the Pittsburgh television news crew that was supposed to capture the recent campaign event for that evening's broadcast was nowhere in sight. The two-term Republican appeared unfazed, diligently packing his corrugated boxes with exactly 20 pounds of cereal, crackers and cookies as though he wanted to master the task, not bothering to chat with the people at his side.

Democrats hope the photo mix-up will be a metaphor for Santorum's campaign against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. in this fall's Senate race, the most fiercely contested in the country. Since 1990, Santorum, 47, has proven to be a canny, come-from-behind campaigner who has risen to the Senate GOP's third-highest leadership post. But this year, Democrats say, his charmed political life may end as he faces an unusually imposing set of challenges.

Sagging approval ratings
They start with the sagging, 38 percent approval rating of President Bush, to whom Santorum is closely tied. Pennsylvanians also say Santorum has suffered self-inflicted wounds since 2000, when he won reelection despite the belief of some that he is too conservative for this centrist state. He published a book that seemed to slight public schools and mothers who work outside the home. He endured widespread criticism when it was learned in 2004 that Pennsylvania paid about $70,000 through an online program to educate his children at their home in Leesburg.

But his biggest problem, many say, is that Casey is the scion of a well-known political family and has won three statewide races.

"It'll be harder for Santorum," said Jon Delano of Pittsburgh, a college instructor and political director for KDKA-TV. A proven vote-getter, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, will lead the Democratic ticket in November, he noted, and Casey's name recognition rivals Santorum's. Still, Delano said, polls showing Casey with a double-digit lead mean little at this early stage. "This will be a close election," he said. "Rick Santorum is a masterful politician. He has very passionate supporters."

This isn't the first time that Casey, 46, has held an early lead in a big-time Pennsylvania race, and Republicans hope the past will prove prologue. In 2002, he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor.

Then, as now, Casey sought to protect his lead, rejecting calls for dozens of debates, and declining to describe in detail his position on some issues. Then, as now, Casey endured taunts that his opponent was a more dynamic and intuitive campaigner.

By the time Casey aired TV attack ads, Rendell was making gains with more-positive commercials. Casey's camp "underestimated Rendell and sat on a lead too long," said Mike Young, a retired Penn State professor who follows Pennsylvania politics closely.

With Republicans hoping he will repeat that mistake, Casey shows little appetite for introspection. "In terms of 2002," he said in a recent interview in his Philadelphia campaign headquarters, "I like that old Thomas Jefferson line that 'I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.' So we won't revisit it. But when you run for office, you learn a lot of things."

Voters want proven performers, he said, "and I think I've got a strong record as a watchdog and fighting battles for working families and for children and for older citizens."

Young predicts a close race but adds: "Casey learns from his mistakes. He's going to run an aggressive campaign."

Still, Casey faces possible pitfalls, starting with his longtime opposition to legalized abortion. Democratic Party leaders wanted to neutralize Santorum's antiabortion activism, and last year they persuaded a prominent abortion-rights candidate to step aside in favor of Casey. The move angered abortion-rights groups, and it may complicate efforts to unite the party's base this fall.

Casey's late father, a two-term Pennsylvania governor, also opposed legalized abortion, and he left office in 1995 with high approval ratings. His popularity had more to do with his political skills and populist stands than the abortion issue, party veterans say, and they are divided on how much the family name will help the son this fall.

Bob Casey Jr. easily won the relatively low-profile offices of Pennsylvania auditor general (1996 and 2000) and treasurer (2004). But Rendell, whom Casey's father defeated in the 1986 gubernatorial primary, interrupted his winning streak. Rendell won especially large margins in Philadelphia's suburbs, where most voters support abortion rights.

Casey's abortion stance "may dampen some of the enthusiasm for Santorum" among conservatives, said Stephen K. Medvic, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.. "But he's got his own problem: Is there going to be excitement at the [Democratic] grass roots" for his candidacy?

In a largely symbolic gesture, two abortion-rights groups have endorsed one of Casey's little-known Democratic rivals in the May 16 primary.

Descriptions of Casey invariably feature the same words. Earnest. Soft-spoken. Engaging and likable, but not electrifying or charismatic. In the recent interview, Casey displayed a command of the issues but a wariness of sharply refined positions.

Asked if he would have voted to invade Iraq, he said Congress would have never held the vote if the faulty prewar assessments of Saddam Hussein's weapons had been known at the time. Regarding U.S. troop withdrawals, he said, "I haven't favored a timetable."

Casey said he would reluctantly support a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the U.S. flag, "if that's the only way we could get there."

Unlike Santorum, he says, he would have opposed the administration-backed tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. On abortion, both men would allow the procedure in cases of rape and incest, but Casey adds that he supports "federal funding for family planning and emergency contraception."

Study in contrasts
Whereas Casey is cool and patient, Santorum seems edgy and eager. He dismisses his challenger, saying, "If his name wasn't Bob Casey, he wouldn't be a candidate."

Santorum bristles at attacks stemming from his 2005 book, "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good." In it, Santorum wrote: "It's amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools."

Regarding two-income families, he wrote: "For some parents, the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home. Many women . . . find it easier, more 'professionally' gratifying, and certainly more socially affirming, to work outside the home. . . . Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism."

Casey said: "I know a lot of Republicans who have two incomes, and they need the second income. . . . They also send their kids to public schools."

Santorum, whose mother worked as a nurse throughout his childhood, said it is absurd to accuse him of criticizing mothers who work outside the home. "No one who read the book feels that way," he said. Democrats, he said, "have tried to create a political issue, and to their credit they've done that."

Santorum lauds tax cuts but rarely volunteers his views on the growing deficit. "I'm someone who believes when you reduce taxes, you grow the economy," he said.

Casey lists deficit reduction as a priority and accuses Santorum of ignoring it. His most consistent swipe at the incumbent, however, involves the senator's record of reliably backing Bush's policies. Santorum said that as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference he helps set the GOP agenda, so it is hardly surprising he is often in sync with the White House.

Casey said the election "is going to be, to a large extent, a referendum on the president and on Senator Santorum's record." Santorum counters that Bush lost Pennsylvania by four percentage points in 2000, while "I won by seven."

"So if the president is at 40 percent [approval rating]," Santorum said, "I'm in good shape."