Casey tries balancing act between left and right in Pa.

SOMERSET, Pa. — To unseat Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), state Treasurer Bob Casey (D) must win over hoards of conservative voters like those in this Laurel Mountain hamlet without losing big-money liberals. Voters here in the southwestern part of the state form much of the backbone of Santorum’s base — truck drivers, waitresses, housekeepers at nearby ski resorts, farmers’ and coal miners’ kids working in construction or at the state penitentiaries.

SOMERSET, Pa. — To unseat Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), state Treasurer Bob Casey (D) must win over hoards of conservative voters like those in this Laurel Mountain hamlet without losing big-money liberals.

Voters here in the southwestern part of the state form much of the backbone of Santorum’s base — truck drivers, waitresses, housekeepers at nearby ski resorts, farmers’ and coal miners’ kids working in construction or at the state penitentiaries.

 


They like hunting deer and pheasant. They pray most Sundays at one of the Lutheran, Methodist or evangelical churches in town or in the mountains. They drive pickups with bumper stickers decrying abortion, gay marriage and Osama bin Laden. A good job amounts to $20,000 a year and health insurance.

And even though many around these parts say “Democrat” is a bad word, they aren’t always averse to voting that way: Reps. John Murtha, one of the most conservative Democrats still on Capitol Hill, and Bill Shuster (R) split Somerset County.

Around here, as most everyone is quick to say, people care about kitchen-table issues — Who’s going to pay their hospital bills? What happens if they get laid off? Will Social Security be there when I need it?

Asked what she thinks of President Bush, Kim Messer, a 40-year-old waitress at Eat’n Park, a local diner, said: “If he loses all the Social Security, I won’t like him.”

All of which means that Casey, known for backing gun rights, opposing abortion and siding with labor unions, has a fighting chance of winning here — or, at least, holding down Santorum’s margins as he seeks a third term.

The only problem for the Democrat is that Casey can’t afford to capture, say, Murtha’s 12th District at the expense of alienating wealthy liberal Democratic donors in Philadelphia. Should he do so, Casey runs the risk of going the way of former Rep. Ron Klink, the centrist Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Santorum in 2000.

Klink managed to win Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in that election but lost everywhere else. One major reason for that was money: Santorum raised $10.6 million, compared to Klink’s $3.6 million.

“I think the money would have made the difference,” a senior Pennsylvania Democratic official said. “That’s what we’ve said to Casey: ‘Figure out something you can say to the liberal wing of the party that you’re going to be their guy.’”

The Democratic official added: “My point is I think that’s our major problem on the issues. We have a liberal wing of the party. That’s where the money is. I know Bob is well-liked out there, but I’m worried about his ability to turn out the vote there.”

Murtha sounded unfazed, saying Democrats are hungry to win back the Senate. “They’re going to hold their nose” and vote for Casey, Murtha said of liberals in his party. Referring to the GOP takeover of Congress, he said: “This is like ’94 all over again.”

Many Democrats hope Casey’s conservative stances on key social issues will neutralize Santorum’s strength among rural voters and force the senator to talk about Social Security, the economy and Medicare — which, Democrats say, works to their advantage.

“I don’t think abortion is going to be an issue,” said Casey’s campaign manager, Jay Reiff.

Chuck Rocha, national political director for the United Steelworkers of America, said the race will focus on bread-and-butter issues such as trade, pension reform and Social Security that are important to Pennsylvania’s 1 million-plus union members.

Republicans say Casey is simply trying to skirt a polarizing fight within his own party while papering over his allegiance to the national Democratic leadership.

Tensions among Democrats have been exacerbated by party leaders, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), “anointing” Casey, Murtha said. Chuck Pennachio, a Philadelphia professor making a long-shot bid for the Democratic Senate nomination, also could create headaches for Casey.

“I don’t believe Casey can fool conservative Democrats in central Pennsylvania by trying to talk about being a conservative and then join the liberal Senate Democrats and support their agenda on abortion, guns and taxes,” Shuster said.

Reiff countered that, if elected, Casey would be his own senator. Unlike those Senate Democrats who have vowed to block Supreme Court nominees opposed to Roe v. Wade, he said, Casey is against “litmus tests” for judges.

Not so, said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), who asserts that Casey portrays himself as independent back home but is close to party leaders in Washington. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have campaigned for him.

Republicans also criticize the Casey campaign for shielding its candidate from the public. They say the Democrat would rather run a nasty campaign against Santorum than discuss his own ideas for helping Pennsylvanians.

Reiff dismisses that attack. But the campaign manager also said Casey would be unable to comment because he is too busy traveling around the state. Reiff added that even he has difficulty getting time with the candidate.

Don Morabito, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s executive director, conceded that Casey has a tough fight ahead but predicted he will be aided by popular Gov. Ed Rendell (D), a potential presidential contender who is up for reelection next year.

“In our weak areas, the two candidates will complement each other,” Morabito said. “More liberal folks can come out for the governor. More conservative folks can come out for Bob Casey.”

Morabito pointed out that Casey won 300,000 more votes in his last election, in 2004, than did presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who carried Pennsylvania.

And he argued that despite Republican claims to Pennsylvania’s huge swath of rural voters, known in political circles as the ‘Big T,’ at least four counties in the center of the state are competitive. “This whole T concept,” Morabito said. “Frankly, it’s not red; it’s purple.”

But he acknowledged that Democrats have not always done as well in the Philadelphia suburbs as they should have, noting that Kerry lost Chester County, outside the city. “We should have won it, and we need to win it in any statewide election,” he said. “We need to win Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Erie and Pittsburgh.”

Rocha said the United Steelworkers of America, headquartered in Pittsburgh, will spend the next 17 months “educating, energizing and mobilizing” its 150,000 active and retired members. While the steelworkers back Casey, the AFL-CIO has yet to endorse a Senate candidate; Rocha said the umbrella group is sure to endorse Casey, possibly early next year. At the top of the unions’ list of legislative concerns is opposition to the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Bush’s plan to restructure Social Security.

Santorum has played a leading role in pushing Bush’s reform plan. Some Republican officials have grumbled that the senator should soft-pedal his stance on Social Security until after the election.

A Washington lobbyist said many conservatives remain angry with Santorum for backing his GOP centrist senior colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter, in the 2004 primary against then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Specter narrowly won, in part because of support from GOP leaders.

But conservatives like Santorum remain popular in remote corners of Pennsylvania, said the Rev. Elisa Osman, who works at two Lutheran churches in the Somerset area.

In this place, people often feel forgotten or hopeless. Buying a house or a used car or escaping the sand trap of a small town with a minimart, two or three gas stations and few long-term prospects is a distant dream. A trip to the hospital often means financial ruin. In Somerset, like other Rust Belt towns in Pennsylvania, faith in God and country holds people together.

“We had some primaries a few weeks ago, and someone brought in their 3-year-old daughter, and the person who brought the daughter in said to their daughter, ‘Right, we vote Republican, right?’” Osman recalled. “It’s very conservative thinking here.”