Casey widens gap over Santorum to 14 points

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is losing ground to his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Bob Casey, a GOP poll to be released today shows.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is losing ground to his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Bob Casey, a GOP poll to be released today shows.

The Strategic Vision survey, conducted Saturday through Monday, gives Casey a 14-point lead over the second-term senator, with the Democrat at 52 percent and the Republican at 38 percent. Seven percent of the 1,200 likely voters interviewed were undecided.

A poll released in early August by the same firm showed Casey leading Santorum by 11 points.

As more people have heard about Santorum’s book, It Takes a Family, and as the senator has come under attack for comments he made about Hurricane Katrina, a negative impression has begun to congeal, Strategic Vision CEO David Johnson said.

“The good thing for him is it’s happening now,” Johnson said.

Johnson suggested the Santorum campaign hone its message, stressing tax cuts and less government regulation, and shift the public’s attention away from the senator and toward Casey, who has said little about his own positions so far.

Johnson also reiterated a point that Santorum campaign aides, who have taken to calling Casey “Bobby,” seem to agree with: The senator must distinguish between Casey Jr. and his father, the late two-term governor whose legacy remains a fixture in Pennsylvania politics.

“A lot of people are mistaking Robert Casey for his father,” Johnson said.

Santorum’s media consultant, John Brabender, warned against paying too much attention to polls 14 months shy of the election, given the daily and weekly fluctuations of the news cycle. He added that the senator’s campaign has yet to run a television ad and that it just hired its campaign manager, Vince Galko, a former executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

Many Republicans are voicing confidence in Santorum.

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), whose 3rd District encompasses Erie, in the northwestern corner of the state, said the senator spent the August recess laying the groundwork for his campaign, raising money and meeting with activists in hard-to-reach communities.

English also dismissed concerns, raised by many Republicans in Washington, that Santorum’s book — called a celebration of the traditional family by fans and a misogynistic rant by foes — would jeopardize his campaign, particularly in suburban, swing districts.

But English, with Daniel Daub, chairman of the Republican Party of Schuylkill County, a critical battleground in eastern-central Pennsylvania, did suggest President Bush might be creating problems for Santorum.

“We have to watch that very closely,” Daub said of the president’s poll numbers. “I still believe in the president. I think he’s doing a great job, but I do think there will be some correlation” between Bush’s support and Santorum’s.

The Strategic Vision poll gives President Bush a 39 percent overall job approval rating, with 51 percent disapproving and 10 percent undecided. Forty percent of respondents back Bush’s stewardship of the economy, and 35 percent support his handling of Katrina.

English said Pennsylvanians have at times been ticket splitters, citing the reelection of Republican Sen. Richard Schweiker in 1974, the same year Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp (D) coasted to reelection and President Nixon was forced to resign over Watergate.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), whose Philadelphia-area 6th District will be home to one of the few competitive races next year, added that Santorum’s flagging poll numbers are hardly cause for concern in his own race.

“I think voters are very discerning,” Gerlach said. “They’re going to look at each office that’s up for election. … I don’t think there’s coattail effects one way or the other.”

Casey’s campaign manager, Jay Reiff, meanwhile, attributed Santorum’s summer slide to the “stupid things” he’s been saying — most recently, criticizing hurricane victims for not having left New Orleans before the storm.

He also dismissed GOP officials who say Casey is running a negative campaign devoid of substance. “We adhere to the rule that if your opponent is digging a hole, you don’t take away his shovel,” Reiff said.

While Democrats say they are unlikely to raise as much money as Santorum, they add that they will have enough to compete next year. Reiff declined to say how much cash Casey would have in the bank by Sept. 30, the end of the third quarter. But he did note that the Democrat reeled in more than $500,000 at a fundraiser Monday featuring Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and he said the campaign is planning a series of fundraisers in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Scranton.

Brabender, Santorum’s media consultant, said that as the media spotlight is trained on Casey the candidate’s numbers would begin to slip. Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), recalled that Casey had been 17 points ahead of Ed Rendell in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2002 but that Rendell ultimately beat Casey by 12 points. “So polls this far out obviously don’t mean much,” Ronayne said.

Still, the Casey campaign is content to be ahead — and pulling away from Santorum. “This is going to be a long campaign,” Reiff said. “From a challenger’s standpoint, it’s better to be ahead than behind, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels.”