Pennsylvania's Senate Race Seen as Crucible

The premier Senate race in the nation may be in Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republican Rick Santorum is likely to square off against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., son of the late governor. Both are likely to sail through their May 16 primaries. But both are anti-abortion. Where does that leave pro-choice voters who want to cast a vote in the primaries? Brad Linder from member station WHYY reports.

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The midterm elections are still months away, but we're going to hear about one of the most closely watched races. Incumbent Senator Rick Santorum is one of the most outspoken Republicans in the Senate and he ranks third in his party leadership. State and national Democrats have been pouring money into Pennsylvania hoping to take him down, but first they need a candidate they can unite behind.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Brad Linder reports on tomorrow's Democratic primary.

BRAD LINDER reporting:

Rick Santorum isn't just one of the most powerful members of the Senate, he's also one of the most conservative. He's an avid supporter of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program. And he opposes abortion. He was a sponsor of the 2003 ban on late-term abortions.

More than a year ago, national Democrats recruited a candidate they thought could beat Santorum. When Bob Casey, Jr. ran for State Treasurer in 2004, he received the largest number of votes in Pennsylvania history. And so far Casey's been leading Santorum by double digits in statewide polls. But there's one position Casey holds that's proven controversial with many Democratic voters.

Mr. BOB CASEY, JR. (Pennsylvania State Treasurer): I'm a pro-life Democrat. Some people describe that differently as an anti-abortion Democrat or however you describe that. But I've been very honest about that position.

LINDER: Casey is also a firm supporter of the right to bear arms, and opposes any new limits on gun purchases. Campaign strategists are calculating that Casey's conservative side will help keep controversial issues like abortion off the table as he campaigns against Santorum this fall. But some long-time Democratic voters are finding themselves torn. Beth Taylor is a mother of twins, and a part-time teaching assistant. She doesn't want to vote for a pro-life Democrat in the primary.

Ms. BETH TAYLOR (Pennsylvania resident): It's disheartening that he has more of a Republican stance on those issues than many of the other traditional Democrats. But if he ends up winning the primary then I would still vote for him.

LINDER: There are two other men vying for the Democratic nomination. But history professor Chuck Pennachio and pension attorney Alan Sandals are hardly the household names in Pennsylvania that Bob Casey is. Together, they pick up less than 10% of the vote in statewide polls.

Casey's held statewide office for 10 years as both State Treasurer and Auditor General and perhaps most importantly his father, Bob Casey, Sr., was governor from 1987 to 1995. But Sandals and Pennachio have made inroads with some who are dissatisfied with Casey. Both support abortion rights and Sandals picked up the endorsement of the National Organization for Women. Sandals says he understands why Democratic leaders are pushing Bob Casey, but he thinks they're wrong.

Mr. ALAN SANDALS (Candidate, Pennsylvania Democratic Primary): I think they were running scared last year. You know, the Republicans had again won the presidency and people had the view that all of a sudden so-called values were what was important. The fact is that values are important always. What happened all last year was that people thought they had to actually imitate Republicans in order to beat them and that's like, how can call surrender actually a victory?

LINDER: Last month, Chuck Pennachio was endorsed by Neighborhood Networks, a group representing several hundred community activists in Philadelphia. Speaking to several dozen supporters from Neighborhood Networks, Pennachio outlined some of his differences with Casey.

Mr. CHUCK PENNACHIO (Candidate, Pennsylvania Democratic Primary): I'd like to thank the host of people who have rallied around this cause, rallied around this effort to restore our politics so that a woman's right to choose is not threatened, so that privacy rights are not under assault, so that a living wage becomes the means of discussion, not simply minimum wage. We need to lift people out of poverty.

LINDER: That message is resonating with some. Mike Doyle is a retired research scientist in suburban Philadelphia. He says Pennachio represents his views better than Casey does.

Mr. MIKE DOYLE (Pennsylvania resident): The traditional Democratic beliefs, concern for the common good, getting out of Iraq, certainly not attacking Iran, a living wage, which I think is something that has a lot of merit.

LINDER: Doyle, like most other Pennachio and Sandals supporters, realizes the candidates are long shots. Marc Stier is secretary of Neighborhood Networks, the group endorsing Chuck Pennachio. He hopes to have as many as 300 members on the street Tuesday, even though he has no illusions that Pennachio will win the primary.

Mr. MARK STIER (Neighborhood Networks): Sometimes you have to stand up for your principles. We agree with Chuck a lot more than we agree with the other candidates. It's really important that people who take our view, both progressives and liberals, feel that they have a voice. It's important that they stick together and ultimately, we want them all to work to defeat Santorum.

LINDER: Stier says that people feel they've had a voice in the primary, they're more likely to show up at the polls in November, even if it's to cast a vote for a candidate they voted against in May.

For NPR News, I'm Brad Linder in Philadelphia.

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