Back to previous page


Post Most

Wofford's Reversal of Fortune

By ,

PHILADELPHIA -- Three Septembers ago Harris Wofford was happily becoming a leading indicator of political upheaval. Today he is trying not to be one.

In May 1991, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat of the late John Heinz. That November, in a special election, Wofford, a practicing liberal and little-known former college president, soared from far behind to defeat Richard Thornburgh, former governor and former Bush administration attorney general. Wofford's win helped catapult his campaign manager, James Carville, to the cockpit of Bill Clinton's campaign, which stressed health care reform in part because Wofford had done well by saying that if every criminal has a right to a lawyer, every American has a right to a doctor.

But that slogan was less important to Wofford's win than the recession, weariness with George Bush and the fact that Thornburgh boasted of being at home in Washington's corridors of power -- a capsule description of what most Americans deplore. And today Wofford is ranked by the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report as "the most endangered incumbent" senator this year. The cause, together with Clinton, of this vulnerability is Rick Santorum, 36, a two-term Republican congressman from Pittsburgh.

Politically, Pennsylvania is three states. The southwest corner, 12 counties in the Pittsburgh media market, has almost half a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, but Santorum expects to win there where he won his seat by defeating a seven-term Democrat. In 1992 he was reelected with 61 percent of the vote in a district that by then had 71 percent Democratic registration.

Pennsylvania's southeast corner is Philadelphia and its collar counties. Santorum thinks he can win the election just getting the registered Republicans in this corner, but he expects to do better, appealing particularly to urban Democrats who are angry about the decline of public schools and favor, as he does, school choice programs.

Pennsylvania's third part is the "T," the central vertical strip and the northern horizontal strip. Santorum says he is receiving an explosion of support there because of his vote against the crime bill with its ban on assault weapons.

The state may call to mind images of molten steel and coke smoke but agriculture is the largest business, and the state has the nation's largest rural population. Lots of farmers, and city people, too, are hunters. Santorum says that on opening day of deer season, a million hunters take to the woods (which must then be as noisy and dangerous as the third day at Gettysburg).

Gun-toting, deer-slaying Pennsylvanians are not toting assault weapons. But, Santorum says, they know that this is the first time since 1934 (machine guns) the government has banned a category of weapons, and they are sure this -- and the Clinton health care bill, and much else -- is part of a pattern of government assaults on personal liberty.

That is Santorum's theme, which he repeatedly introduces with the words of an 18th century Philadelphian, name of Franklin: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Clinton, says Santorum, claims his economic policies will provide "economic security" and "employment security," and his crime bill provides "personal security," and his health bill "health security." But the proper tone of American life was set across the street from Santorum's campaign headquarters in this city, in Independence Hall, 218 years ago, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence put all security at risk for freedom.

Wofford, 68, bears the banner of traditional liberalism, so the issues are clearly drawn. But it is the Clinton downdraft that may be decisive.

In a national survey of 1,000 registered voters, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, has found that only 29 percent answer "yes" to the question "Is Bill Clinton doing well enough as president to deserve four more years?" Even among those who voted for Clinton, only 56 percent say "yes"; among self-identified Democrats, only 51 percent.

When people are asked if, within the last 30 days, their opinion of each party has improved or worsened (the survey was taken after Congress's recent health and crime battles), 26 percent say their opinion of the Republican Party has improved and 27 percent say their opinion has worsened. But only 19 percent say their opinion of the Democratic Party has improved, and 40 percent say it has worsened.

Among Perot voters, 8 percent say their opinion of the Democratic Party improved, 46 percent say it has worsened. Clinton is losing the middle, the only people who can move him from his 43 percent in 1992 to 50 percent in 1996.

Three years ago, Wofford rose as his opponent plummeted in Bush's downdraft. Today, Santorum knows how Wofford felt.

© The Washington Post Company