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GOP on a Mission to Save Santorum

Times Staff Writer

Keith Hollenberg, a member of the evangelical Assemblies of God church, is worried that one of his political heroes is about to lose his bid for reelection.

So when he saw Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) at a car show here, Hollenberg volunteered to help in what has become an urgent project for social conservatives in Pennsylvania and around the country: keeping Santorum in the Senate.

“I’m a big fan of yours,” Hollenberg told him. “Keep on pulling for the right thing.”

Santorum, an outspoken advocate of banning same-sex marriage, restricting abortion, and other social conservative causes, is considered this year’s most-endangered senator.

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It is a four-alarm fire for conservatives, who are bringing water buckets from all corners of the political world. Across Pennsylvania, pastors are preparing to stuff voter guides into their Sunday bulletins. In Washington, D.C., Paul Weyrich, a national conservative leader, hosted a conference call to give a pep talk to Republicans in Pennsylvania. In England, some Santorum fans are planning to cross the Atlantic to help campaign.

“I think it’s important for people across the country to recognize how important it is not only to pay attention but to get engaged in this race, whatever way they can,” said Colin Hanna, head of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative group based in Pennsylvania. “If Rick Santorum were to lose, it would be cited as a turning point in the social conservative movement.”

Santorum is not just a key link between the Republican Party and Christian conservatives. He is also one of President Bush’s most unapologetic allies in Congress and a member of the Senate GOP leadership. And he is the apotheosis of a younger generation of Republicans -- led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- that transformed the party in the 1990s into a more confrontational, ideological political force.

If 2006 turns into the electoral romp for Democrats that many analysts now are predicting, a loss by Santorum would be a signifier of the end of that Republican revolution.

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If Democrats are unable to defeat Santorum, they are unlikely to win a majority in the Senate, which Republicans control 55 to 45.

For most of the year, polls have found Santorum trailing his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., by double-digit margins. The senator’s backers last week cheered a poll by the Allentown Morning Call showing the gap narrowing to 46% to 41%. They were hoping that a spirited televised debate last week opened a new chapter of voter education about Casey’s liabilities that could work to Santorum’s advantage.

But G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said Santorum was in deep trouble if he was still drawing only 40% support, having already leveled a heavy barrage of campaign ads and attacks on Casey.

Among Santorum’s political problems: He is running in a state that went for Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Here in Philadelphia’s suburbs, considered crucial to the election’s outcome, even fellow Republicans are not as conservative as he is. At a recent GOP meeting in Upper Darby, Santorum sounded less like a champion of social conservatism and instead circulated a flier, “Delivering for Upper Darby,” that detailed the federal money he had secured for local sewer repair, garage construction and more.

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Even if Santorum gives social issues short shrift on the campaign trail, conservative leaders understand what is at stake. They stand to lose a powerful spokesman for their agenda. Some worry that Santorum’s defeat would also be a body blow to the influence of social conservatives within the GOP.

“You would then start to see party apparatuses say things like, ‘We’re not sure we want to support a candidate whose conservatism is as deeply rooted as Sen. Santorum’s,’ and they will begin casting about for moderate conservatives,” Hanna said.

At age 48, with boyish looks that make him appear a decade younger, Santorum does not look the part of a man who could be near the end of a fast-rising political career. Walking in a parade one rainy Saturday outside Philadelphia, Santorum jogs robustly from one side of the street to the other to greet spectators. Tie-less and in chinos, he wears the unflappable smile of a man who is nowhere near ready to concede defeat. Even when people boo him from curbside, he boldly reaches into the crowd to shake their hands.

Twelve years ago, Santorum was swept into the Senate when his opponent and other Democrats tripped on the coattails of Bill Clinton in the Republican tide of 1994. With a 49% plurality, Santorum beat Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford.

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Santorum had already spent four years in the House, where he worked with Gingrich and the “Gang of Seven” conservative rebels who exposed a scandal at the House bank. He was eager to stir the pot even in the more staid Senate, where one of his first acts was to challenge the seniority system.

Nevertheless, Santorum zoomed up the leadership ladder. At 42, in 2001, he was chosen to be Senate Republican conference chairman, the party’s No. 3 post, after having won reelection to the Senate with 52% of the vote.

Many more factors are working against Santorum now than in his 2000 campaign -- most notably, his link to a president whose approval ratings are below 40% in many polls. Unlike other vulnerable Republicans who have run away from the White House, Santorum continues to embrace Bush’s policy in Iraq, his controversial ideas about overhauling Social Security, even his beleaguered secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Santorum is not just a victim of political circumstance. Even his admirers say he routinely suffers self-inflicted wounds from his sharp tongue.

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In 2002, he blamed Boston “liberalism” for the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. In a 2003 interview, he linked gay consensual sex with bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery. In a 2005 book, he found fault with two-income families and working women. The ensuing controversies have so engulfed Santorum’s image that his campaign website has a long feature, “Myth vs. Fact,” to counter what people “hear around the water cooler” about Santorum.

With polls showing Casey consistently in the lead, the son of a popular former governor has run a low-key campaign with a light schedule of public events -- a classic front-runner’s strategy. Santorum accuses him of hiding from voters, running on his name and refusing to be specific. He ridiculed Casey for refusing to attend a debate last month, bringing an empty chair to dramatize his point.

When the two did meet in a televised debate last week, the exchange was bitter and personal.

“I don’t know how you can say so many words and say nothing,” Santorum said.

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Casey replied, dismissively: “Don’t be a desperate campaigner.”

If there is one thing voters know about Casey, it is that he opposes abortion rights. That may cut into Santorum’s ability to draw support from socially conservative Democrats.

Some conservatives are focusing on differences between the candidates on social issues other than abortion. A voter guide being distributed by the American Family Assn. of Pennsylvania, designed to be slipped into church bulletins, highlights their differences on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (Santorum supports, Casey opposes), allowing over-the-counter sale of a morning-after pill (Santorum opposes, Casey supports) and expanding federal hate-crime protections to homosexuals (Santorum opposes, Casey supports).

Hanna’s group has set up a network of conservative pastors around the state to mobilize churchgoing voters. Although it cannot by law endorse a candidate, the Pastors Network of Pennsylvania has enlisted nearly 1,000 pastors in voter-registration and get-out-the vote drives.

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“I think this race is drawing very, very close,” said Hanna. “The deciding factor may be which set of supporters is more motivated to turn out.”

janet.hook@latimes.com


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