A centrist Dem takes on a GOP culture warrior

MICHAEL MCGOUGH writes editorials for The Times and is the former Washington-based editor-at-large for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

TODAY, voters in Pennsylvania will get their first comparative view of the candidates in a race that will be (pick your cliche) crucial, pivotal or decisive in the Democratic Party’s attempt to regain control of the Senate.

Perhaps fittingly for what has become an iconic contest, incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger, Bob Casey Jr., will tangle for the first time in a joint interview on national television, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

With polls continuing to show Casey ahead -- albeit by a narrowing margin in most surveys -- Democrats profess optimism that their candidate, the son, namesake and ideological protege of a popular former governor, will ride family coattails, disaffection with President Bush and anti-incumbent sentiment to a victory over Santorum, who, Casey’s advertisements note, “votes with George Bush 98% of the time.”

A Casey victory would do more than move an important Senate seat to the Democratic side of the aisle. It also would alter the trajectory of Santorum’s career as national champion of social conservatism -- though he might be offered the consolation prize of a job in the lame-duck Bush administration.


Finally, a Democratic victory would be seen as a vindication of the national party’s still-controversial decision to back Casey, a moderate Democrat who shares his father’s (and Santorum’s) opposition to abortion and who has refused to endorse a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

If Ned Lamont, the antiwar candidate who defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman for the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut, is the poster boy for the view that the Democratic Party must veer left, Casey is the standard-bearer for the argument that there are still votes to be gained through Clinton-style moderation. It’s a perennial debate inside the Democratic Party, but a Casey victory -- especially if it contributed to Democratic control of the Senate -- would shore up centrists as the party moved toward presidential primaries in 2008.

Despite his lead in public opinion polls, lots of Democratic fingers will be crossed when Casey, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, spars with Santorum today and in two later TV debates. The unease is rooted not only in concern about how Casey, a rather colorless campaigner, will perform. It also reflects the fact that it is easy to underestimate -- or, as Bush would say, misunderestimate -- Santorum.

I ought to know. Sixteen years ago, I was one of three editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who interviewed Santorum on public TV during his first run for federal office, a seemingly quixotic attempt to knock off veteran Rep. Doug Walgren. A videotape of the program painfully captures our skepticism. If Walgren was so out of touch with the district, one of my colleagues asked Santorum, why did voters keep reelecting him? After the taping was over, and Santorum had left the building, another editor said, “We’ll never hear from this guy again.”

We were wrong, of course. Santorum beat Walgren in 1990 and was reelected in 1992 despite adverse redistricting. In 1994, he defeated incumbent Sen. Harris Wofford, who was appointed by Gov. Bob Casey (after John Heinz was killed in a plane crash) and then vanquished Dick Thornburgh, a former governor and U.S. attorney general, in a special election in 1991. In 2000, Santorum was reelected even though Democrat Al Gore comfortably carried Pennsylvania in the presidential race.

Democrats say they are confident that Santorum’s luck has run out despite the fact that the incumbent has narrowed Casey’s once-cavernous lead in most public opinion polls. An Aug. 24 survey by Franklin & Marshall College showed Casey with 44% and Santorum with 39%, with 4% supporting Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli and 13% undecided. But a USA Today/Gallup Poll of likely voters released Friday put Casey ahead, 56% to 38%.

“We’ve been saying all along that the polls are going to tighten,” said Casey campaign spokesman Larry Smar. “We never expected to win by 24 points. Santorum and his allies have spent $6 million, and he’s only at 39%. I don’t think that’s very good.” But other analysts see hope for Santorum in the narrowing of the race. And, as Santorum media strategist John Brabender pointed out, two months of campaigning remain.

“The polls show a high percentage of people who say they don’t know [Casey] all that well,” he said.


Debates are a key part of Santorum’s strategy to drive up Casey’s negatives. In a departure from usual practice, it is Santorum, the incumbent, who has been pressing challenger Casey for more televised encounters. Even some Democrats worry that a lackluster performance by the diffident Democrat could be the undoing of his remaining lead. Santorum is a practiced debater.

Santorum’s secret weapon -- not only in debates but on the campaign trail -- may be his personality. Critics accustomed to thinking of him as a shrill conservative cultural warrior -- he once likened gay relationships to “man on dog” sex -- need to be reminded that on a personal level Santorum can be genial, funny and self-deprecating. And at 48, he looks remarkably like the youthful challenger who insisted to skeptical journalists in 1990 that he would topple an entrenched incumbent because he had spoken to so many voters.

Santorum has other advantages in this race, including a willingness to rise above conservative principle in the interests of the folks at home. In 1997, for example, he scandalized doctrinaire free-marketers by urging voters in his hometown of Pittsburgh to approve a half-cent sales tax for infrastructure improvements, including the construction of sports stadiums. (The measure failed.) In the current campaign, he boasts of bringing home bacon that conservative purists might call pork.

Other issues are in play. Although Santorum may have voted with Bush 98% of the time, he vociferously opposed legislation supported by the White House that would eventually allow illegal immigrants to gain legal status. Casey endorsed the bill. Although Pennsylvania is hardly at the epicenter of the debate over illegal immigration, Santorum has emphasized the issue.


Immigration aside, however, both campaigns recognize that as an incumbent senator from the president’s party Santorum’s fate is entwined with Bush’s standing. The question is whether Casey can capitalize on that connection forcefully enough to keep Santorum from becoming this election’s comeback kid.

One veteran of Democratic campaigns in Pennsylvania said the Bush-Santorum connection could be decisive even if Casey turned in a disappointing performance in debates. “The message is: ‘You’ve been in office for the past six years and your approach isn’t working. Why should we let you stay?’ It’s a compelling argument, even if Casey isn’t a good argument-maker.”