“Pennsylvania’s always been in play, in my opinion,” Smith said in a recent telephone interview after campaigning with Ryan. “It’s pink now, turning red.”
Smith was not the first choice of top Republicans here, including Gov. Tom Corbett (R), who supported a different candidate in the April primary. Unknown in the southeast, Smith poured $2 million into the Philadelphia media market in August and September as Casey’s campaign held its powder in the expensive market until two weeks ago.
One poll, from Quinnipiac University, showed the two candidates statistically tied in the southeastern suburban counties, as Casey clung to a three-point lead statewide. His campaign released an internal poll from Friday showing the senator ahead by 52 percent to 39 percent. His image as a candidate willing to defy his party on key issues — Casey opposes abortion rights — has the senator receiving more support than most Democrats in the traditionally conservative regions.
Casey was clearly caught off guard by Smith. It’s difficult to find a “Casey for Senate” lawn sign in eastern Montgomery County. At the Obama campaign office in Elkins Park, visitors are greeted with literature for the president, the nominee for state attorney general, the local congresswoman and two candidates for state representative — but nothing for Casey.
At a recent Casey event at an electrical workers union hall in Allentown, supporters hounded the senator and his staff for campaign literature and lawn signs, handing over contact information to receive campaign staples.
“We can finish strong,” Casey said in an interview, noting the difficulty of running as an incumbent during tough economic times as opposed to six years ago against an unpopular Santorum.
Casey finally began running an ad that links Smith to the Senate conservatives who would overhaul Medicare and Social Security, a key issue for a state that has one of the nation’s oldest populations. “This isn’t just a one-liner. They are deadly serious,” Casey warned supporters.
The aim is to define Smith as a fringe member of the tea party movement. Just as Messina tried to learn from Shapiro’s Montgomery County victory, Casey is using similar themes. His ads end with a picture of Smith on a teacup, under the label “Tea Party Tom Smith.”
The same admaker ran a similarly hard-hitting spot for Shapiro in 2011, and if the Obama campaign suddenly decides that Pennsylvania is back in play, it probably will use the same themes against Romney.
Once touted as someone who would help the president in other parts of the state, Casey may need to draft Obama’s vote-getting operation in the southeastern corner for both incumbents to win. As Shapiro told Obama volunteers last week, they need to come close to replicating those large margins in the city and suburbs. “Every extra Obama vote we get here is going to make the difference,” he said.