- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2006

First of an occasional series

PITTSBURGH — When Sen. Rick Santorum was first elected to Congress 16 years ago, he was among the firebrand conservatives who mapped out the Republican Revolution to slash government spending and end political careerism in Washington.

Today, the Pennsylvanian is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. But the Republican Revolution is over, and he faces one of the toughest re-election campaigns in the country.

Typical of his campaigning these days was a stop earlier this month at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where he boasted to local reporters about how he’d fetched $500,000 from federal taxpayers to build one of the most luxurious polar-bear exhibits outside Arctic climes.

“They’re building underwater tunnels so you’re actually under water,” Mr. Santorum told his awe-struck children as they toured the construction site and approached a tunnel of 4-inchglass that will allow zoo visitors to view the bears from below.

In November, Mr. Santorum faces state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., a conservative Democrat who says Mr. Santorum has lost touch with the voters who first elected him and accuses him of helping usher in a new and deeper era of fiscal irresponsibility.

The race is viewed by many — including Mr. Santorum — as one of the biggest challenges facing a Republican incumbent nationwide as Democrats seek six seats to gain control of the chamber. Mr. Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, says Democrats want revenge for Republicans’ 2004 toppling of Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota.

After the zoo event, Mr. Santorum was asked whether funding for the polar-bear exhibit really was all that important, given the federal government’s hemorrhaging debt, looming financial crisis in entitlement programs and expensive emergencies, such as the war in Iraq and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

“If the pot of money is there, I’m going to make sure we get a piece of that money,” said Mr. Santorum, who defended his record of support for “lean” budgets.

“The federal government does finance educational programs with respect to biology and zoology and a whole host of areas that we think is important for our children,” he said. “Is that an important thing? Well, you know, yeah, it probably is.”

That’s the wrong answer for some of his longtime supporters.

“Where does the federal government get the constitutional right to take $500,000 from people to build a polar-bear exhibit?” asked Charlie Clift, who has supported Mr. Santorum in every past election.

‘Lost touch’

To be sure, conservative Republicans such as Mr. Clift, who lives in Bucks County north of Philadelphia, aren’t upset at Mr. Santorum simply because he directed federal funding for the polar-bear exhibit. They say that after 16 years in Washington, he has “lost touch” with the vision of smaller, more responsible federal government that he promised.

And while Mr. Casey has not proved himself any more loyal to such beliefs, his campaign is certainly capitalizing on conservative dissatisfaction with Mr. Santorum.

A favorite line in Mr. Casey’s stump speech is that Mr. Santorum has steadfastly opposed increases in the federal minimum wage even as he has voted three times to raise his own salary.

It gets worse when Casey staffers dredge up statements that Mr. Santorum made 16 years ago that he would never accept a pay raise, even a cost-of-living adjustment.

“The public is fed up with members of Congress having no limits on their ability to increase their salaries,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Santorum saying in 1990. “And members do not seem willing to voluntarily limit their salaries like I have, vowing never to accept any more salary than what is provided upon taking office.”

Today, Mr. Santorum has come down from the ramparts.

“I believe that members of Congress should, by and large, receive cost-of-living adjustments,” he said when asked about Mr. Casey’s charges. “If we’d left the salary what it was when I first took office, we’d be getting a third of the value of the dollar than what I got when I came in.”

It’s an issue that has already cost several Pennsylvania politicians their careers.

Just last year, the Pennsylvania legislature outraged residents by granting themselves a pay raise in the middle of the night. As word of the deed spread, there came a public outcry and the formation of a nonpartisan organization called Pennsylvania Clean Sweep, dedicated to throwing out all the incumbents.

Clean Sweep “is not a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Constitution, Green or Reform Party movement,” according to its organizers. “It’s us vs. them. The governed vs. the government. The taxpayers vs. the tax wasters.” And the group’s record of success has every incumbent in the state fearing for his job.

This year, all 203 members of the state House and 25 of the state Senate’s 50 members face re-election. In the May primaries, 35 Pennsylvania Clean Sweep candidates won their races, a staggering seven having toppled incumbents.

Mr. Santorum’s only hope is that voters remember that Mr. Casey, who eventually joined those opposed to the pay-raise plot, is the state treasurer who had signed all the fattened checks.

‘I still feel the knife’

Come November, Mr. Santorum will need the vote of every breathing conservative in Pennsylvania. Mostly, they are the folks in the Philadelphia suburbs and vast rural middle of the state who in past elections have knocked on thousands of doors for fiscally conservative, pro-life, pro-gun candidates.

Just two years ago, they were out in force for former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, a conservative who challenged and nearly beat Pennsylvania’s longtime senior senator, Arlen Specter, who is among the most liberal Republicans in the Senate.

In 2004, Republicans knew that if Mr. Specter won the primary, he’d cruise to victory with his traditional support from Democrats and independents. If Mr. Toomey had won the primary, he would have had a much harder time winning the general election.

Because it was a presidential year in which Pennsylvania could be crucial, the White House wanted a safe bet and got behind Mr. Specter. And so did Mr. Santorum.

“We had a 51-49 United States Senate, and every seat mattered,” Mr. Santorum said. “It was important, I thought, for the president to have someone strong on the ticket. I thought it was important for us to keep this seat.”

Although Mr. Specter speaks publicly of his gratitude for Mr. Santorum’s backing, it’s a decision that has returned to haunt the Santorum campaign.

“I still feel the knife in my back from that,” Mr. Clift said. “We worked very hard for Pat Toomey. All [Mr. Santorum] had to do was keep his mouth shut, and we’d all be fat, dumb and happy supporting him right now. I won’t lift a finger to help him.”

In addition, he said, “I’m not pulling the Santorum lever this time. I’ll write my own name in before I’ll vote for him.”

Although many conservatives told The Washington Times that they will not campaign for Mr. Santorum as actively as they would have otherwise, they’ll still vote for him.

“There is no enthusiasm,” said Tim Krieger, a lawyer in Westmoreland. “If you press Republicans, they say, ‘Yeah, Santorum is better than Casey,’ but they’re not going to spend their Saturdays knocking on doors.”

One Toomey supporter who has forgiven Mr. Santorum is Mr. Toomey himself, who is now the president of the conservative Club for Growth. He has endorsed Mr. Santorum and held a fundraiser for him earlier this year.

State Sen. Bob Robbins enthusiastically supports Mr. Santorum, but said he’s not surprised that the two-term incumbent faces a stiff challenge.

“Rick Santorum is a principled leader, and he has been a champion for conservative issues of our time,” he told supporters at a recent rally. “Legislators like Rick who have a solid record and are strong in their positions often have a target on their back.”

Bush drag

One political ally voters won’t see with Mr. Santorum at any endorsement rallies is President Bush, who is unpopular in Pennsylvania.

“The president isn’t going around doing campaign rallies for people,” Mr. Santorum said. “What a president is best at doing for a candidate is one thing: raising money. When you have the president at an event, people will pay money to see him.”

Despite a host of formidable obstacles, Mr. Santorum’s campaign is much better off today than it was just a few months ago when he trailed Mr. Casey by a double-digit margin.

The most recent poll by Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., had Mr. Santorum trailing by six percentage points, 47 percent to 41 percent, with 12 percent undecided.

And, Mr. Santorum is a tireless and unwavering campaigner, who seems to relish his underdog status.

At the Pittsburgh Zoo, he was treated with great fanfare by hosts grateful for the federal funding Mr. Santorum had secured for the polar-bear exhibit. After surveying the construction site, the staff escorted him to the neighboring sea-lion exhibit.

Wearing loafers, a golf shirt and an uncomfortable grin, Mr. Santorum stood inside the pen and watched as zookeepers tossed dead fish to eager, well-fattened sea lions.

One of the sea lions hopped out with a splash and waddled to within a few feet of Mr. Santorum. A dead fish was thrown, and the sea lion caught it. With a series of barks, the beast reared back on its rump and clapped its flippers.

But that applause is not universal.

Recently, Mr. Santorum with several armed guards in tow began traveling through this state in a giant, blue RV emblazoned with the smiling faces of him and his family.

As it lumbered through a toll booth on the interstate between Pittsburgh and Erie, it caught the eye of a toll collector a few booths down.

“Yo, do me a favor, would you?” he asked a driver as he gave him change.

“When you pull out of here, hit that truck,” said the toll collector as he watched Mr. Santorum’s smiling face pull away.

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