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October 11, 2006

The End of Rick Santorum?


They say Pennsylvania is the ultimate swing state. The nation’s sixth-most populous state contains a juxtaposition between big-city and rural areas as stark as any in the nation. As a central front in the culture wars, Pennsylvania has sent radically different types of politicians to Washington in recent years. And perhaps the most conservative of those politicians has been the state’s current junior senator, Rick Santorum.


Despite being merely a second-term senator who has never run for any national office, Santorum is one of the most recognizable members of the Senate. He’s written a best-selling book, is often interviewed on national television shows, and was even praised by Tony Soprano on an episode of “The Sopranos” (though Tony, it should be noted, mistakenly referred to him as “that senator, Sanitorium”).


But despite his notoriety — or perhaps, because of it ­— Santorum’s re-election this November is far from assured. In fact, his seat has been considered one of the least safe Republican ones almost since the start of the current election cycle.


Why is that? There are a number of factors. This looks like a strongly Democratic year, both nationally and in Pennsylvania. In the state in particular, voters are outraged at the Republican leadership in the state capitol, Harrisburg, for voting themselves a pay raise earlier this year. President Bush is immensely unpopular in the state, which he lost in both 2000 and 2004, and Santorum has never acted in any way to distance himself from the president.


The Republican candidate for governor, former football star Lynn Swann, has gained next to no traction and is expected to lose by double digits to popular Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. Three Republican congressmen in suburban Philadelphia are facing tough opposition for re-election, in races that may very well swing control of the House. And Republican Rep. Don Sherwood’s seat may be in danger, after it came to light that his former mistress had accused him of attempting to strangle her during a backrub.


Another major part of Santorum’s difficulty is that he has a strong opponent, state treasurer Bob Casey Jr.


Casey, whose father and namesake was a popular two-term governor of the state, is also a committed centrist, who has been outspoken about his opposition to abortion and gun control. And while Casey’s pro-life status, which he shares with his late father, has cut him off from some major Democratic funding sources, it has served to inoculate him from the charge that he’s too left-wing for the state’s rural areas.


The biggest surprise, however, is that Santorum may be too right-wing for them as well. The senator may be best-known for, in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press, equating homosexuality with bestiality. Then, at a time when most candidates would attempt to move to the center, Santorum published a book in 2005 called “It Takes a Family,” that seemed to argue for a return to 1950s-based family values.


Santorum has not run a particularly strong campaign, especially for a candidate who had little trouble getting elected in either of his two previous races. He’s been relentlessly negative throughout, sending daily faxes to the news media condescendingly slamming Casey as “Bobby,” and slamming him for having not yet debated Santorum, even when the election was more than six months away.


And when the Santorum campaign released an anti-Casey advertisement that tied him to several contributors who had been arrested or convicted of crimes, an “Ad Watch” segment on a local Lancaster TV news broadcast labeled the ad “false,” its lowest designation.

Polls taken in the past week unanimously place Casey in the lead, by as much as 13 percent (the Rasmussen poll) to as little as 5 percent (the Allentown Morning Call.)

There is another reason why Santorum is much better known than the average senator. Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex columnist, reacted to Santorum’s 2003 comments by holding a “name a gay sex act after Rick Santorum” contest — and the winner, alas, certainly cannot be published in this or any other family newspaper.

Savage attempted to donate to Casey’s campaign and was rebuffed, but instead re-directed his efforts to a group called Philadelphians Against Santorum. Savage was scheduled to visit Philadelphia this week for a fundraiser. It’s very easy to imagine Santorum’s staff showing up with cameras, filming the crowd and scaring the living daylights out of Central Pennsylvanians.

Santorum has rushed back from behind before, such as during his 1994 race against incumbent Harris Wofford. If he’s going to do so again, it’s hard to imagine him doing so without using the culture wars to his advantage —whether Dan Savage is involved, or not.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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