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Santorum remains confident despite underdog status 

Sen. Rick Santorum lags behind his leading Democratic challenger in the polls, and holds one of the lowest approval ratings of any senator in the country.

He is part of the Senate Republican leadership at a time when many voters seem less than enamored of the way Congress is doing its job, and more than frustrated with the Iraq war, gas prices and the economy.

But this isn't a campaign in freak-out mode. Not yet, at least.

"I've been behind in every single race, so I'm in a comfortable position for me," Santorum told radio host Don Imus last month. "So I mean, it's a good time, if you want to, to sort of bail, endorse my opponent, and then come back at the end when I'm going to win."

With such an assured candidate, the campaign and its supporters are putting their faith in Santorum's history of come-from-behind victories, a strategy intended to shift his image from divisive national figure to indispensable Pennsylvania senator, and Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr.'s ability to blow sizable leads from early polling.

But after months of critical publicity, and four surveys in three weeks showing Santorum down by 8 percentage points to 18 percentage points, aides to the senator acknowledge a need to keep his public comments focused on issues that help his reelection.

"I think there's concern, yes. But fright, no, and certainly not panic," said Charles Gerow, a Harrisburg media consultant and Santorum ally. "Rick recognizes, at this point, [that] he is certainly the underdog. He is certainly not afraid to run at the back of the pack."

It's true that Santorum has rarely been a front-runner. He amazed the political establishment in 1990 by unseating a seven-term U.S. representative, and won reelection in 1992, even after Democrats redrew the district to tilt it more to their favor. Two years later, he defeated Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford.

His 2000 reelection stands out for its relative ease. With the exception of a survey by KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh that showed a statistical tie after the primary, Santorum ran ahead of the Democratic nominee, Ron Klink, in head-to-head polling. Still, there were doomsday headlines, spurred by Santorum's low approval ratings 16 months before the election.

His numbers look worse this time around.

In July 1999, his unfavorable ratings stood at 20 percent, compared with an 11-year high of 32 percent in last month's Franklin and Marshall College poll. Six years ago, 38 percent said it was time for a different senator. Last month, the number rose to 47 percent. About 35 percent said Santorum deserved reelection.

He is one of only two incumbent senators, of 29 seeking reelection next year, who has trailed a challenger in the polls.

Democrats and pollsters say Santorum's wounds are self-inflicted. The problem started early this year with his controversial role in keeping Terri Schiavo alive through a court battle to remove her feeding tube, and continued through the summer with It Takes a Family, his book challenging two-income households, feminism, and public education.

Casey is mining this angle. He accuses Santorum of championing a "harsh and intolerant" ideology that puts him out of step with the electorate.

Not exactly, says John Brabender, a Santorum strategist. Brabender says the political environment is hurting Santorum. Polls show that two-thirds of voters think the country's on the wrong track, which affects attitudes toward incumbents.

Both sides agree on this: The race will tighten.

The Casey campaign has emphasized this recently, attempting to avoid the perception later, if the polls grow closer as expected, that Santorum has the momentum. This happened in the 2002 governor's race against Ed Rendell, when Casey turned a double-digit lead into a 10-point loss on primary day. Casey reclaimed his electoral strength last year, winning the state treasurer's office with more votes than any candidate in state history.

Brabender says the numbers will shift once the race truly begins - once Casey speaks out more, and the Santorum campaign tells what it views as the other side of the senator's story.

"There are a lot of things that I do that the public doesn't know about," said Santorum, who started assembling a campaign staff only last month. "What happens is that there is a stereotype, a one-dimensional stereotype, that gets out there and gets repeated over and over. I have to do my job better in making sure people see the whole picture. That is what campaigns are for."

At the heart of the strategy, aides and allies say, is an attempt to shift perceptions:

He is a fighter - not just for a conservative social agenda, but for Pennsylvania, securing money for local projects, suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over plans to close the Air National Guard unit at Willow Grove, and focusing on long-term-care issues for seniors, as he did last week in Norristown.

He is No. 3 in the Senate leadership, which could be a liability, but also an asset. Why give up that clout for a freshman Democrat?

And in the socially moderate Southeast, which is crucial to both parties, the focus won't be on his opposition to abortion rights, gun control, or embryonic stem-cell research - areas of general agreement with Casey - but his work on tort law, tax cuts and land preservation.

The approach - on full display in a speech Santorum gave Friday to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce - mirrors his 2000 campaign, which sought to moderate his image. The strategy also resembles that of Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.): Run on incumbency, and raid the traditional Democratic base - labor, black clergy, Jewish voters - when possible. Santorum has pursued all three groups.

His campaign intends to spread the message through highly targeted direct mail, an Internet operation that recasts the news their way, and a ground effort modeled after Bush's 2004 campaign, which recruited volunteers to the precinct level.

Whether the strategy is a winning one won't be known for months, but Santorum is expected to have more money than Casey, about $25 million, to make it happen.

He's kept the faith of power brokers such as Robert Asher, a Santorum fund-raiser from Montgomery County who said he had bet against the senator twice before: first in 1990, when Santorum told Asher he would beat an incumbent congressman, and again in 1994, when he ran for Senate.

"I don't intend to be wrong three times... " Asher said.

By Carrie Budoff, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct 17, 2005

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