Correction to This Article
An April 16 article on the Pennsylvania Senate race noted that a Pittsburgh television news crew did not record Republican Sen. Rick Santorum boxing up items at a non-profit food bank in Duquesne. The article should have said that the crew arrived in time for later portions of Santorum's visit to the food bank, including a meeting with volunteers, and it broadcast a segment on those activities that evening.

Santorum Facing Multiple Obstacles In Reelection Bid

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has consistently trailed his likely opponent in polls, but an observer of state politics cautioned:
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has consistently trailed his likely opponent in polls, but an observer of state politics cautioned: "This will be a close election." (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

DUQUESNE, Pa. -- Everything was in place for the photo op. Sen. Rick Santorum joined an assembly line of volunteers boxing up dry goods at a warehouse that distributes food to thousands of low-income Pennsylvanians.

But the Pittsburgh television news crew that was supposed to capture the recent campaign event for that evening's broadcast was nowhere in sight. The two-term Republican appeared unfazed, diligently packing his corrugated boxes with exactly 20 pounds of cereal, crackers and cookies as though he wanted to master the task, not bothering to chat with the people at his side.

Democrats hope the photo mix-up will be a metaphor for Santorum's campaign against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. in this fall's Senate race, the most fiercely contested in the country. Since 1990, Santorum, 47, has proven to be a canny, come-from-behind campaigner who has risen to the Senate GOP's third-highest leadership post. But this year, Democrats say, his charmed political life may end as he faces an unusually imposing set of challenges.

They start with the sagging, 38 percent approval rating of President Bush, to whom Santorum is closely tied. Pennsylvanians also say Santorum has suffered self-inflicted wounds since 2000, when he won reelection despite the belief of some that he is too conservative for this centrist state. He published a book that seemed to slight public schools and mothers who work outside the home. He endured widespread criticism when it was learned in 2004 that Pennsylvania paid about $70,000 through an online program to educate his children at their home in Leesburg.

But his biggest problem, many say, is that Casey is the scion of a well-known political family and has won three statewide races.

"It'll be harder for Santorum," said Jon Delano of Pittsburgh, a college instructor and political director for KDKA-TV. A proven vote-getter, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, will lead the Democratic ticket in November, he noted, and Casey's name recognition rivals Santorum's. Still, Delano said, polls showing Casey with a double-digit lead mean little at this early stage. "This will be a close election," he said. "Rick Santorum is a masterful politician. He has very passionate supporters."

This isn't the first time that Casey, 46, has held an early lead in a big-time Pennsylvania race, and Republicans hope the past will prove prologue. In 2002, he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor.

Then, as now, Casey sought to protect his lead, rejecting calls for dozens of debates, and declining to describe in detail his position on some issues. Then, as now, Casey endured taunts that his opponent was a more dynamic and intuitive campaigner.

By the time Casey aired TV attack ads, Rendell was making gains with more-positive commercials. Casey's camp "underestimated Rendell and sat on a lead too long," said Mike Young, a retired Penn State professor who follows Pennsylvania politics closely.

With Republicans hoping he will repeat that mistake, Casey shows little appetite for introspection. "In terms of 2002," he said in a recent interview in his Philadelphia campaign headquarters, "I like that old Thomas Jefferson line that 'I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.' So we won't revisit it. But when you run for office, you learn a lot of things."

Voters want proven performers, he said, "and I think I've got a strong record as a watchdog and fighting battles for working families and for children and for older citizens."

Young predicts a close race but adds: "Casey learns from his mistakes. He's going to run an aggressive campaign."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company