Incumbency no help to Santorum
Monday, November 21, 2005
BY BRETT LIEBERMAN
Of Our Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - After 11 years in the Senate, Rick Santorum has become one of the most powerful and influential leaders in state and national politics.
He boasts a close relationship with President Bush, he's the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate, and he is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for the White House.
An incumbent running for re-election with such credentials normally would scare off most challengers and have few political worries.
Yet low public approval ratings, a well-liked opponent, an increasingly unpopular president mired in an equally unpopular war, an unhappy electorate, public perceptions of ethics lapses by Republicans and Santorum's own miscues have turned next year's Senate election upside down.
Advisers to Santorum concede they are growing increasingly frustrated by his weak support and the tactics of state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., his likely Democratic opponent.
Some analysts and party officials say Santorum's campaign tactics, such as calling for 10 debates a year before the election, are bordering on desperate, particularly for a two-term incumbent.
"I think there is a certain frustration on my level," said John Brabender, Santorum's longtime adviser and media consultant.
"Every day I have to hear Bobby Casey's criticizing without saying what alternative he would offer," he said. "At least be man enough to offer solutions as well or stand on the same stages."
With Santorum trailing Casey by 15 to 20 percentage points in independent polling, Republicans maintain that Pennsylvania voters would be less enamored with Casey, the son of the former governor, if he were less reluctant to tell them his positions on many of the issues that Santorum votes on.
Casey, who last week released an ethics reform plan while rebuking Santorum for his ethics, has criticized Bush and Santorum's proposal for private Social Security accounts and spending cuts for popular programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
He has unveiled an economic plan and advocated eliminating some of the tax cuts for the wealthiest that Bush is seeking to extend. Casey has said he would like to use that money for programs and relief for the middle class and poor.
He's also voiced concerns about how the Bush administration has managed the Iraq war, which he said he would have supported based on the intelligence that was provided to Congress.
But Santorum and GOP aides have mounted an aggressive campaign that accuses Casey of running a stealth campaign and refusing to say how he would vote on the same issues as Santorum.
Last week, Santorum challenged Casey to 10 debates before the general election. Political experts say that might be unprecedented for an incumbent.
Casey plans to debate Santorum after the primary, according to aides.
"Casey has a significant polling advantage which allows him to act like an incumbent, and incumbents debate few times and minimize exposing themselves to criticism," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College.
Sen. Arlen Specter, for example, agreed to only a handful of debates with his primary opponent, Rep. Pat Toomey, after much stalling last year.
"Politics is a game of strategy and tactics, and at the moment, Casey can play a little rope-a-dope and at the moment a year from the election doesn't have to campaign like he's behind or needs name recognition," Madonna said.
He added: "At the moment, Casey's best strategy might be to go to the Caribbean and stay away."
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said he doesn't fault Santorum for pressing for debates but said only political insiders and journalists are paying attention to the early jousting in what is expected to be the premier race of next year's midterm elections.
"It's by any count incredibly early to be talking about that," he said.
Brabender claims Santorum has always called for debates with his opponents. But it wasn't until former Rep. Ron Klink clinched the Democratic nomination in 2000 that Santorum agreed to debates.
Santorum's record has become both an advantage and his biggest vulnerability in the race with Casey, who has never had to vote on similar legislation in the row offices he's held.
While Santorum can boast a record of fiscal discipline or promotion of conservative causes, Democrats and Casey have found a trove of votes against higher spending for popular programs such as those that benefit veterans and the poor.
Besides trying to create the impression that Casey is hiding, Santorum and his advisers think debating Casey might be their best bet to provide a contrast they believe will showcase the incumbent's strengths.
"They don't want to be seen on the same stage as Rick Santorum because they are concerned they won't have the same command of the issues," Brabender said.
BRETT LIEBERMAN: (202) 383-7833 or firstname.lastname@example.org