Rick Santorum has much riding on Pennsylvania primary

In Pennsylvania, the next big battleground state in the Republican presidential contest, Rick Santorum has a lot more at stake than a few dozen delegates.

In the past year, Santorum has moved far beyond the image of his historic defeat in 2006, a humiliating 18-point loss in the race for his U.S. Senate seat. Another setback in his home state could erase much of what he has won back, leaving a tarnish that could darken his political future.

A win, however, could provide a measure of redemption for the former senator, who has spent much of the presidential campaign trying to live down that loss six years ago and prove to voters that he is more electable than front-runner Mitt Romney.

When he refers to his 2006 loss in speeches, he casts himself as a victim of the deep anti-Republican sentiment that prevailed at the time — and of his own unwavering conservatism. He has called it a humbling but constructive experience that gave him an opportunity to see Washington from an outsider’s perspective.

“The people of Pennsylvania didn’t always give me what I wanted, but they always gave me what I needed,” Santorum said, explaining that he got too wrapped up in the “sausage-making” during his time in the Senate and that, in defeating him, the voters gave him “a great gift.”

As Santorum returned to kick off his campaign Tuesday in Pennsylvania, many Republican activists and strategists, including some who back Romney, say the former senator has reason to be optimistic about the April 24 contest — despite polls showing a close race, with the former Massachusetts governor catching up, and successive losses to Romney in other Rust Belt states. Santorum sustained a blow when he lost to Romney in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District on Tuesday.

Pennsylvania voters, they say, have been pleasantly surprised by Santorum’s stronger-than-expected showing in the primary season. The thinking is that voters have been reminded about what they initially saw in Santorum, who first won a congressional seat in 1990 as an upstart young politician who exhaustively knocked on doors and inspired passion in his supporters.

“When Rick is an underdog, he’s at his best as a candidate,” said Alan Novak, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Novak has endorsed Romney but believes Santorum has the edge in the state. “He’s energetic . . . speaks from the heart, and he taps into the feelings of voters.”

Pushed by the tea party movement, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania has grown more conservative since 2006, a shift likely to favor Santorum. His positions remain virtually unchanged from his earlier political life. And loyalty still runs deep for the grandson of a western Pennsylvania coal miner.

“We are so excited. From where he was and how far he’s come, it’s just unbelievable,” said Vickie Case, 62, a longtime supporter, taking a break from her task opening mail Tuesday afternoon at a Santorum office in Pittsburgh, in an area that was once Santorum’s House district.

Still, it will not be a cakewalk for Santorum on April 24, a day on which five Northeastern states hold their primaries. The others — Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island — are expected to heavily back Romney, delivering a huge delegate haul for the former Massachusetts governor.

The race also comes at a time when Santorum’s shot at the presidency seems more unlikely than ever.

For many who watched his career trajectory in Pennsylvania, the primary has played out predictably, with Santorum drawing his strongest support from evangelical Christian and rural voters but struggling to connect with suburban moderates.

And voters in this swing state are closely attuned to the kind of candidate who can compete well in a general election.

“A lot of us like Rick,” said Jim Roddey, Republican Party chairman in Allegheny County, who has endorsed Romney. “A lot of people admire him for his convictions, and I think he has made a remarkable run. But his message, I think, is far too strident. He doesn’t appeal to women, and he doesn’t appeal to independents.”

Memories linger of the combative senator who stood as one of President George W. Bush’s top defenders when the president’s popularity was at an all-time low. He also alienated many moderate Republicans in suburban Philadelphia by emphasizing social issues and releasing a book critical of public education and women in the workplace.

Many Republicans bitterly recall his support of Sen. Arlen Specter over a more conservative challenger in 2004, and Romney’s backers are already reminding voters of this fact via robo-calls.

Still, Santorum’s campaign says it has received an outpouring of adoration from his longtime fans in Pennsylvania. They have followed his career since he left the Senate and watched as he struggled with the birth of his special-needs daughter, Bella, who has come to symbolize his commitment to antiabortion causes.

Aides believe that Romney’s better-funded campaign will have less impact here because voters who know Santorum well are less likely to be swayed by negative advertising.

Santorum, they said, plans to mount a low-key campaign in Pennsylvania that resembles some of his early races in the state. He has already begun tapping into old networks and plans to win new supporters through radio and television ads, but also through the old grass-roots techniques — “church groups, literature drops, coffee klatches,” said Keith A. Schmidt, a former congressional staffer for Santorum who is now a political consultant for his campaign.

Supporters say they are confident he will win in Pennsylvania, but they understand what he risks by competing here.

“I agree that Pennsylvania becomes all-important for the senator, because you don’t want to lose your home state. None of us wants that to be the last chapter in the race,” Schmidt said. “We just have to hope that whatever was out of fashion in 2006 is way back in fashion now, because Rick has not changed.”

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics