Even with a Green Party candidate now in the race, Democratic challenger Bob Casey leads Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, according to a poll released Tuesday.
In a three-way matchup, Casey leads Santorum 45 percent to 39 percent, with Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli picking up 5 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters. Eleven percent were undecided or did not plan to vote.
Romanelli, a railroad industry consultant from Wilkes-Barre and a former family-court support officer, qualified with enough signatures Aug. 1 to get on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. He has said that most of his financial backing has come from Republicans, and Democrats have challenged his signatures in court.
Romanelli is considered a potential spoiler for Casey, who is now Pennsylvania's state treasurer, because he supports abortion rights while Santorum and Casey oppose them.
With less than three months to go before Election Day, Santorum has already begun a heavy schedule of statewide TV ads in one of the nation's most hotly contested Senate races. Casey's ads have so far focused on the Pittsburgh market.
Casey planned to start a day of campaigning Tuesday in this tiny borough in southwestern Pennsylvania. Santorum was in his home town of Penn Hills and had no public events scheduled.
In a two-way race, 47 percent of the respondents in the Quinnipiac Poll favored Casey to 40 percent for Santorum, with 13 percent either undecided or expressing another opinion. The seven-point advantage is down from an 18-point lead Casey had in the same poll in June.
Most of the ground Casey lost went to Romanelli, while Santorum's numbers improved slightly, said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the Connecticut-based university's polling institute.
Early voter focus
"The voters are looking at the totality of the race. They're really paying attention for the first time. The race doesn't really start until after Labor Day," Richards said. "This is a much more normal look at the Senate race. They are the kinds of numbers you would expect rather than polls that showed Santorum down by 20 points."
Only 42 percent of the respondents said they approved of the way Santorum, the No. 3 Senate Republican, is handling his job - compared with 38 percent in June.
Thirty percent said they had a favorable opinion of Santorum, while 33 percent had an unfavorable opinion.
Casey had a favorable opinion from 26 percent of voters and an unfavorable from 14 percent. The share of voters who said they had not heard enough to form an opinion about a candidate was much greater for Casey than for Santorum.
Of those who said they would vote for Casey, 42 percent said it would be a vote against Santorum.
President Bush's approval rating in the state was 33 percent, which was about the same as it was in June. The share of Pennsylvania voters who approved of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq slipped to 31 percent from 35 percent in June.
In the poll, Quinnipiac conducted telephone interviews with 1,384 Pennsylvania voters from Aug. 8 through Monday. The results carry a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.