News Column

Santorum Makes a Stand in Pennsylvania

April 5, 2012

James O'Toole

As the chorus of Republicans eager for his exit from their party's presidential primary race continued to grow, Rick Santorum headed to Pennsylvania's conservative heartland Wednesday, determined to turn his old state into a bulwark against Mitt Romney's march to the GOP nomination.

In this town outside Altoona, as across the nation, much of the state party's hierarchy has already lined up behind the front-runner. But as a candidate whose polling numbers were in single digits in Iowa only a few months ago, the former senator said he's used to such odds.

"When you look at the contrast we can provide -- someone from a blue-collar working-class town in Butler, Pa. ... clawed his way up through the political process, never being anybody's favorite, always being the underdog, always being someone that was discounted," he said, after a lunch stop at a diner in his old congressional district. "I think folks in Pennsylvania for a long time have admired that story and can related to that story, and I think they will again in this election cycle."

Low on money and far behind in delegates, Mr. Santorum has limited choices: withdraw or hope for a burst of momentum from his former constituents.

Mr. Romney's commanding position in the race gives him more options. He visited Broomall, Pa., just west of Philadelphia, on Wednesday night, amid the kind of moderate suburbs that have nurtured his candidacy. Mr. Romney, a former management consultant, emphasized his business bona fides before a crowd of Republican moderates at a family-owned spiral-staircase manufacturing firm.

Planning Mr. Romney's first Pennsylvania rally in more than nine months at Broomall's The Iron Shop was no accident, said Delaware County Republican chairman Andrew J. Reilly. Mr. Romney made a visit more than a year ago to the same shop in the heart of a county with one of the region's most reliable GOP machines. Then, he was launching his second presidential bid. He spoke Wednesday as if he had already eliminated Mr. Santorum as an obstacle.

"The president says he wants to transform America," Mr. Romney said. "He's crushing dreams, he's crushing the dreamers, he's crushing the middle class." Not once did he mention his GOP rival as he lambasted President Barack Obama on everything from his health care initiative to his economic recovery handling.

Mr. Romney was to appear today in Harrisburg before heading to the Scranton area. So, while five states have primary voting April 24, both candidates signaled Wednesday that Pennsylvania would be the crucial battleground.

Mr. Romney was already all but certain to win the lion's share of votes and delegates in those combined contests in three weeks. Neither Mr. Santorum nor the two trailing contenders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, have shown any signs of being competitive in those other East Coast contests -- Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island.

Thus, Mr. Romney has the option of ceding Pennsylvania to Mr. Santorum and still coming out the big winner in three weeks. But unless Mr. Romney's immediate foray into the state is a political head fake, he plans to force Mr. Santorum to defend his home turf.

A Romney win in Pennsylvania would almost certainly drive Mr. Santorum from the race. Despite the unpredicted prior successes that made his campaign such a remarkable political story, a Santorum loss in his home state's primary, after the landslide that ended his Senate career in 2006, could hobble his political future in 2016 and beyond.

"We have to win here, and we plan on winning here," he said.

According to recent polling, Mr. Santorum entered the state's primary race with a lead, but not an overwhelming one. Surveys in the past week have shown him with an advantage ranging from 2 to 6 percentage points over Mr. Romney, with Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Paul far behind. But recent primary wins in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin have shown that the amply funded Romney campaign can overcome such leads.

Mr. Santorum insists that the pattern won't be repeated in the Keystone State. "People in Pennsylvania know me," he said Wednesday. "All of the negative attacks, I think, are going to fall on a lot of deaf ears here, and we've got a strong base of support here."

But in recent weeks, Mr. Romney has showcased senior GOP officials and members of the state's congressional delegation endorsing his campaign. That organizational strength is expected to be on display today as he stops by his Harrisburg headquarters.

The state's unique delegate selection rules suggest that even if Mr. Santorum does manage a Pennsylvania popular-vote win, it won't provide any dramatic net gain in convention strength relative to the front-runner. Whatever the popular-vote results, Pennsylvania's winning delegates will be free to vote for whomever they choose in late August on the national convention floor in Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Santorum spoke in mid-afternoon in Hollidaysburg, one of the seedbeds of recent conservative unrest with the state's Republican establishment. He was introduced by state Sen. John Eichelberger, who ousted a longtime GOP power, former state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, in a 2006 primary upset that turned on the former leader's support for a notorious legislative pay raise.

One of Mr. Eichelberger's key supporters then was current U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, whom Mr. Santorum opposed in the 2004 Senate primary when Mr. Toomey was challenging then-Sen. Arlen Specter. But Mr. Eichelberger's presence Wednesday showed Mr. Santorum's ability to make common cause with party insurgents, such as tea party forces he praised in his speech outside the Blair County Courthouse.

Still, endorsements and exit polls in recent contests have shown that Republican conservatives are increasingly coalescing behind Mr. Romney.

Mr. Santorum stopped Wednesday evening at a bowling alley in Mechanicsburg, across the river from Harrisburg, where he donned a personalized jersey and bowled a couple games with several of his children and an aide.

Supporter John Hawk, who lives in Enola, said he was impressed that Mr. Santorum had chosen a bowling alley for a campaign stop, as he had regularly in Wisconsin. "It just seems so small town, family-oriented," he said. "It's cool that he doesn't think he's above stopping at a place like this."

After the final frame, Mr. Santorum departed for an Easter weekend off the trail.

Post-Gazette staff writer Karen Langley and the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed.

Source: (c) 2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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