Santorum braces for tough fight for Senate

Hungry to return to power, Democrats focus resources on Pa. seat


BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership, sums up his race for re-election this year with pride: "The other side of the aisle wants to beat me more than anything you can possibly imagine," he told the Greater Lehigh Valley Auto Dealers Association recently.

Santorum is almost certainly right. No other race in the nation has so focused the Democratic Party's energy, resources or hunger to return to power on Capitol Hill.

No other race captures the Republican Party's vulnerabilities this year, with some public opinion polls consistently showing Santorum trailing his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.

Santorum, 47, has been a brash symbol of the conservative ascendancy since his election to the Senate in 1994, leading the charge on issues such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and the partial privatization of Social Security - enraging liberals all the while.

He says he relishes a come-from-behind fight against Casey, but acknowledges that "it's not easy being me" in the current political climate, with a president whose approval ratings are stuck in the 30s.

Casey, 45, is an experienced statewide candidate, the son of a popular former governor, and in some ways the symbol of a new pragmatism in the Democratic Party.

National party leaders heavily recruited Casey to enter this race, despite his long opposition to abortion rights, because, quite simply, they thought he could win.

In this demographically older, economically anxious state, Casey is casting Santorum as a "rubber stamp" for Bush administration policies, citing budget cuts on education and Medicare, tax breaks for the rich and substantial budget deficits. "We're on the wrong road," he said.

This is a big race - expected to cost more than $50 million and to attract strategists and advocacy groups from around the country. The Democrats need a net gain of six seats to recapture the Senate, and this is one of their best shots at a pickup.

When the race is over, Pennsylvania, a quintessential swing state in national politics, could also help answer questions about the parties as they head into the 2008 presidential election: Can the Democratic Party hold an energized liberal base while reaching out to social conservatives? Can the Republican Party win a war of ideas - on economics, health care, tax cuts - among middle-class and working-class voters when the social and cultural issues are neutralized?

The stage was set for this campaign after the 2004 election, when Democrats were still reeling from their losses in the House, the Senate and the White House.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was busily recruiting candidates for 2006 and quickly settled on Casey, a former state auditor general who had just won election as the state treasurer with a record-setting statewide vote.

Schumer said he "got some real flak, particularly in the pro-choice community," when he began advancing the Casey candidacy.

Nobody is counting Santorum out.

A strong campaigner, he is expected to draw heavy national Republican support, has raised more money than Casey and plans to mount a state-of-the-art political effort with at least 40,000 volunteers.

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