For Santorum, Race Momentum Swings

Pennsylvania's Sen. Rick Santorum has long been considered to be the Senate's most endangered Republican. But polls show him closing the gap with Democratic candidate Bob Casey Jr. Political onlookers are wondering whether the turnabout is a case of Santorum gaining — or Casey faltering.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Unidentified Man #1: Don't forget to vote in today's primary. Don't forget to vote into today's primary. Don't forget to vote today, you can vote until 9:00 tonight. Don't forget to vote in today's primary.

Unidentified Man #2: I live in Jersey.

Unidentified Man#1: Not a problem.

SIEGEL: A scene on the streets of New York City today, one of many places holding primary elections. Turn out there is not expected to be very light, even though both the Governor's Mansion and a Senate Seat are at stake.

In other places, competitive races have spurred turnout. In Rhode Island, Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffey faces a tough battle with a conservative challenger. And in Arizona an open congressional seat as resulted in a split among GOP voters over how to deal with illegal immigrants.

There have few problems with the mechanics of democracy today, Maryland voters showed up this morning, only to find widespread troubles with electronic voting equipment. Here's how Samuel Statland(ph) explained things to people in Montgomery county Maryland.

Mr. SAMUEL STATLAND (Polling volunteer): If you're in line at 8 o'clock and are identified as being in line at 8 o'clock, you will vote on the touch screen machines. If you're line after 8 o'clock, you will vote an extended provisional ballot.

SIEGEL: We turn now to a race that is not on the ballot today. In Pennsylvania, it has been a rough year for Republican Senator, Rick Santorum. From the outset he has trailed his democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., and often by double digits. Lately, the race has tightened, with polls showing Santorum within five or six points of Casey. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: In a low income Hispanic neighborhood in Philadelphia last week, Senator Rick Santorum is celebrating the opening of a new faith-based community health center.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): I have been very strong supporter of community health centers. It's a wonderful thing to hear people stand here at a microphone and talk about their commitment to the children of God and to go to areas that are in need of service.

LIASSON: Santorum is an outspoken cultural conservative, who's never been shy about expressing his views on abortion, gay marriage, or contraception. But this election year, he's been showcasing something else - his power as an incumbent to steer federal resources to Pennsylvania projects like the Esperanza Health Center. And Santorum says that's part of the reason he's been able to narrow the gap with Bob Casey.

Sen. SANTORUM: The more we're telling people about what I have accomplished with the people of Pennsylvania, guess what, this race is closed. It's no longer about a referendum on the president of the United States, it's about a choice between two candidates in Pennsylvania and who can best do the job to represent the interests of our state.

LIASSON: Turning the midterm election from a broad verdict on Republican rule to a narrower choice between individual candidates, is at the heart of the republican strategy this year. And Santorum has stuck to that playbook, keeping a relentless focus on his opponent.

Sen. SANTORUM: We have one candidate that is a hard-charging, hard-working, honest, upright worker for Pennsylvania; and someone who doesn't show up for work, who's constantly running for office, has nothing to say about any of the issues.

LIASSON: That line of attack shows up in Santorum's television ads.

(Soundbite of TV Ad)

Unidentified Narrator: Bobby Casey before running for a new job, shouldn't he show up for the one we're already paying for?

LIASSON: Those ads are effective, says Political Scientist Terry Madonna, who directs the Keystone Poll in Pennsylvania.

Mr. TERRY MADONNA (Director, Keystone Poll): The senator has scratched and literally clawed his way back into this race, not so much by improving his own standing with the voters of the state, but rather by sort of pulling Casey down to him.

LIASSON: Madonna's poll shows that Santorum is still stuck with just about 39 percent of the vote. It's Casey's support that has dropped, from fifty percent to forty-four. And the number of undecided voters has gone way up.

With twice as much Casey, Santorum has been able to spend heavily on political advertising over the last few months. But now Casey is beginning to attack Santorum on television, too.

(Soundbite of TV Ad)

Unidentified Narrator #2: …Rick Santorum's record? Voted three times to give himself a pay raise, while voting thirteen times against raising the minimum wage. And he votes 98 percent of the time, with George Bush. Even…

LIASSON: Beating Rick Santorum rather than electing Bob Casey, sometimes seems to be the Democrat's goal in Pennsylvania. Here's how Casey was introduced at the Democratic State Committee Meeting in Harrisburg on Saturday.

Unidentified Woman #1: This is our day, this is the time to get rid of Rick Santorum. And here is the guy that is going do it, the next Senator for Pennsylvania! Bob Casey!

(Soundbite of cheers)

LIASSON: In almost every way the Pennsylvania race is a reflection of the national political battle. Like President Bush, Santorum has tried to focus the election away from the war in Iraq - which is unpopular - and toward the war on terror where Republicans still have an advantage.

He's attacked Casey for failing to understand the nature of the terrorist threat. But this year democrats are determined to fight back, even on national security. And in Harrisburg, Casey has a counter attack.

Mr. BOB CASEY (Senatorial Candidate; Democrat, Pennsylvania): This crowd in Washington - the Bush, Cheney, Santorum crowd - has given $81 billion more to tax cuts for the wealthy than they have to Homeland Security. So when they tell us that they are doing everything to keep us safe, we're going to remind them what their priorities have been. It's been tax cuts instead of Homeland Security. Tax cuts instead of keeping us safe.

LIASSON: If Casey has his way, Pennsylvania voters will come to believe that Bush, Cheney is Santorum's first name.

Unidentified Male #5: (Unintelligible) American way. $7.50 - next.

Unidentified Male #6: Mushroom cheese steak with onion…

LIASSON: In the Italian market neighborhood of Philadelphia on the corner where Pat's and Geno's fight for control of the Cheese Steak market. Customers eat sandwiches slathered in Cheese Whiz and consider the merits of Bob Casey and Rick Santorum. Dawn Wright(ph) is a social conservative who says she's sticking with the incumbent.

Ms. DAWN WRIGHT (Philadelphia Resident): I'm voting for Santorum. I just really appreciate his family values and his conservative issues, how he's against abortion.

LIASSON: Grey Halwood(ph) is leaning to Casey. But like many others he says his vote is really a vote against Santorum.

Mr. GREY HALWOOD: And I'm just ready for somebody else. I don't know that's one of my reasons why I'm going to vote just because it's not Santorum. So, maybe that's not the best reason but…

LIASSON: Santorum is a polarizing figure in Pennsylvania, social conservatives love him - liberals despise him. So moderates like Steve Diveney(ph) will determine the outcome here.

Mr. STEVE DIVENEY: I'm actually Republican.

LIASSON: Well what happened?

Mr. DIVENEY: I'm just not a Santorum fan. He's a little over the top on some of his issues. So, yes, I'm still looking at him, I think he's (Unintelligible). So I'm anti Santorum, but I'm not sure I'm completely with Casey yet.

LIASSON: There is no Senate seat the Democrats want more than Rick Santorum's. And there is no seat Republicans will work harder to defend. Both parties will be spending tens of millions of dollars in the next seven weeks, to influence the decisions of the Pennsylvania voters who haven't yet made up their minds.

Unidentified Male #7: Two cheese steaks with, and one with provolone.

Unidentified Male #8: And one gets whizzed?

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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