Bush making private push for Santorum

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President Bush will visit Sewickley Heights tonight in his second trip to Pennsylvania to raise money for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the incumbent who is near the top of the target list for national Democrats in this year's elections.

As he stood surrounded by supporters at his Green Tree campaign office yesterday, Mr. Santorum predicted that the event would add more than $500,000 to the war chest he brings to his anticipated challenge from Democratic Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. The cash will be a welcome boost to what is expected to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the country this year.

At this point in his administration, however, the president's embrace is a mixed blessing to Santorum and other Republican candidates. After the third anniversary of a controversial war, with approval ratings for his job performance at all-time lows, the president brings baggage as well as benefits to the GOP lawmakers who will defend their congressional majorities in November.

In early polling on the highly anticipated match-up, Mr. Santorum's approval rating is ominously low and he has consistently trailed Mr. Casey by double-digit margins. The man coming to his aid tonight is even less popular with Pennsylvanians. Mr. Bush almost won the state in 2004, but his approval ratings here, as across the nation, have plunged since then.

A Ouinnipiac University poll released in February found that only 37 percent of Pennsylvania voters approved of his job performance, compared to the 42 percent who approved of Santorum's performance.

A more recent survey by the Republican-leaning consulting firm, Strategic Visions, put Mr. Bush's job approval rating in the state at 35 percent. Those surveys, along with Franklin and Marshall College's Keystone Poll, have portrayed Mr. Casey with a lead of more than 10 percentage points.

Mr. Santorum shrugged off the significance of those early numbers yesterday.

"I don't worry about any sort of issue of the polls or public sentiment at this point in the campaign," he said. "You know, there's seven months until the election, and a lot of things are going to change."

Mr. Santorum was among the first wave of critics of the since-scuttled deal to have a Dubai-headquartered company supervise major U.S. ports. Earlier this year, he criticized the White House for its tactics -- although not for its overall position -- in trying to revamp the Social Security system. But Mr. Santorum dismissed a question on whether such issues reflected an election year shift away from the administration to which he has been closely allied as the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.

"I think if you look back through the years, we've differed on issues," he said. "Obviously, when you're up for re-election and the president's numbers aren't particularly strong, people try to make a lot of that. They don't make a lot of it when the president's numbers are great and you disagree with him."

Low-key is a relative term when it comes to the movements of the most powerful politician in the world, but this visit will be quieter than most of the dozens of previous trips to Pennsylvania that Mr. Bush has made during his tenure. While reporters will be able to glimpse the president's arrival and departure on Air Force One, there will be no media coverage of the event at Birchmere, the Sewickley Heights home of businessman Richard P. Simmons. The campaign anticipates about 500 guests at the $1,000 per person event. Those interested in a souvenir could contribute $10,000 for the prospect of having their picture taken with the president.

An earlier presidential fund-raiser for Mr. Santorum, in which he raised $1.7 million in Montgomery County last June, was also private, as was a Central Pennsylvania event with Vice President Dick Cheney. At this early stage of the campaign, Mr. Santorum said of the president, that rather than standing side-by-side at more public rallies, "the best use of his time for me is to help us raise money."

In the spring of 2004, by contrast, Mr. Bush chose a more public Pittsburgh event to endorse and raise money for Sen. Arlen Specter who was facing a primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. Beyond fund raising, however, the political point of that event, was to showcase the presidential support to conservative Republicans tempted to stray from the moderate incumbent.

Mr. Santorum's anticipated challenger, Mr. Casey, was in Pittsburgh himself last night for a somewhat more modest fund-raising event, but one that was similarly closed to media coverage. While candidates more typically crave publicity, the Democrat, with his consistent polling advantage, has little incentive to change the status quo. In a telephone interview just before the $50-a-person event at a Lawrenceville art gallery, Mr. Casey said that the intense demands of fundraising, rather than an effort to keep the spotlight on the incumbent, accounted for his campaign's relatively low public profile.

"The reality of it is that I've been having to spend an extraordinarily significant amount of campaign time on fund raising. In a more ideal world, you'd want to be able to spend more time with voters, and we will get to that."

Mr. Casey noted he had released a variety of position papers already, and said that the more public aspect of his campaign would naturally emerge as the campaign progresses. He will be in Harrisburg tomorrow, where he is expected to win the endorsement of the Democratic State Committee.

His campaign has also agreed to at least one and possibly more debates with his Democratic challengers, Chuck Pennacchio and Alan Sandals. Pointing out that he still has not won the nomination, however, Mr. Casey has dismissed suggestions from the incumbent's campaign that they take the unusual step of debating before the primary.

Such confrontations would serve the Santorum campaign's goal of making sure that the race is perceived as a choice between two politicians, rather than a referendum on the incumbent. For the time being, however, the Democrat appears content to cede the spotlight to Mr. Santorum.


James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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