In the face of an apparently tightening race, the air war of the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate campaign turned tougher over the past 24 hours as both sides began TV ads assailing their opponent's record.
U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum was first to go on the broadcast offensive with a commercial poking fun at state Treasurer Bob Casey's work record and political history. Mr. Casey quickly responded with a commercial defending his record while criticizing the incumbent on Social Security, the minimum wage and his allegiance to President Bush.
The developments come after months in which the better-funded Mr. Santorum dominated the TV landscape in the state while Mr. Casey held the dominant position in public polling.
As of the last campaign expense reporting period, on June 30, the Republican had $9.4 million in cash on hand, while Mr. Casey reported $5.2 million.
Mr. Santorum's ad barrage preceded a narrowing of the polling advantage Mr. Casey has consistently held over the incumbent. A survey released by Franklin & Marshall College yesterday puts Mr. Casey's advantage at 5 percentage points. It is consistent with other public surveys that also show him in front, but by notably smaller margins than the double-digit edge he had earlier.
Mr. Santorum's ads had remained upbeat throughout the summer, touting his accomplishments in office and attempting to inoculate him against expected attacks on the controversial issue of Social Security.
The new ad breaks that pattern with an assault on Mr. Casey's work record, coupled with an attempt to raise voters' eyebrows at the number of different offices Mr. Casey has sought.
The Democrat's political resume includes two terms as auditor general; he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor four years ago and won his current term as state treasurer two years ago.
While critical of Mr. Casey, the tone of the new ad aims more for the jocular than the jugular. If, as many analysts have predicted, this campaign has a truly nasty phase, it has yet to begin.
Mr. Casey has previously rebutted GOP criticism of his attendance record as treasurer, maintaining that he is in touch with and in charge of the office whether or not he happens to be in Harrisburg on a given day.
The Santorum ad also alludes to the fact that Mr. Casey's successor as auditor general, Jack Wagner, stated that more than 800 required audits were still awaiting completion when he took office.
Larry Smar, a spokesman for Mr. Casey, dismissed the commercial as evidence of desperation by the Santorum campaign.
Rebutting its charge about an audit backlog, he said, "The audit schedule isn't run on a political calendar; there's always audits that are ongoing that can't be wrapped up with a nice bow at the end of someone's term. While Bob was auditor general the level of audit activity actually went up with fewer employees."
Mr. Casey's counterattack criticizes the incumbent, citing three votes to raise his congressional salary and 13 votes against proposals to raise the minimum wage. Responding to previous Democratic criticisms of those votes, Mr. Santorum has pointed out that he voted for other proposals to raise the minimum wage, including a recent measure that would have coupled the increase with a permanent cut in federal estate taxes.
The ad also cites Mr. Santorum's record of support for Bush administration positions in Congress, and his leading role in administration efforts to revamp the Social Security system, replacing part of the current benefits for younger workers with private or personal accounts.
While Mr. Santorum had broadcast ads in most of the state's media markets, his Democratic challenger is for the first time broadening the reach of an ad campaign that had been restricted to the Pittsburgh market.
Starting yesterday, an ad in which Mr. Casey complains about the priorities of Washington without mentioning his opponent by name went on the air across the state. It was quickly followed by the combined rebuttal/attack ad.
The Keystone Poll released yesterday depicts Mr. Casey leading Mr. Santorum 44 percent to 39 percent, with 4 percent favoring Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli and 13 percent undecided.
Viewed in isolation, the Franklin & Marshall survey abounds in ominous findings for the incumbent. Despite months of relatively unchallenged television advertising, he remains behind. His job approval and favorability numbers are weak and he is tied to a president with still lower approval numbers.
But contrasted with the double-digit deficits of surveys in the spring and earlier in the summer, and coupled with the findings of public polls in the last 10 days, the results allow the incumbent to claim momentum despite his persistent deficit.
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.