CORNWALL, Pa. -- For the first time in his fight for a third term, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., directly questioned his opponent's ability to make the right decisions on national security at a time when "our enemies are fully committed to our destruction."
Mr. Santorum, who has trailed Democrat Bob Casey for months in independent polls, yesterday accused him of being unqualified for the Senate "at a very critical time in our nation's future."
In the first of a two-day series of speeches on national security, Mr. Santorum said Mr. Casey fails to recognize the danger of a threat that encompasses both "Islamic fascism" and leaders of countries who are "fully committed to our destruction."
"From everything I see, my opponent, Mr. Casey, is unready, unqualified for the office that he seeks at a very critical time in our nation's future," Mr. Santorum said in a speech at PRL Industries, a metal-castings supplier that counts the military among its customers.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Casey called Mr. Santorum's charge a "ridiculous assertion," citing his current job as state treasurer and eight years as auditor general.
"I've been a statewide public official in Pennsylvania for a decade," Mr. Casey said.
Mr. Santorum's criticism comes after the campaign released a hard-hitting TV ad earlier this week showing Mr. Casey's face next to a mushroom cloud and accusing him of supporting policies that hurt national security.
While Mr. Santorum and Mr. Casey have consistently traded barbs throughout one of the nation's most competitive Senate races, Mr. Santorum's latest criticism is "the most direct affront" to Mr. Casey's political credentials, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and director of the Public Opinion Research Center at Muhlenberg College.
"Obviously, the suspicion is that he feels he has to shake something up within the campaign and thereby help his chances come Nov. 7," Mr. Borick said. "If he felt good, that things are all right with his campaign, he probably wouldn't be changing it up and moving up to the next level of criticism."
In his speech, Mr. Santorum invoked Winston Churchill, described alleged terror plots and said the United States must pay attention to escalating threats from countries such as Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.
"We will have to face this threat because our enemies are fully committed to our destruction," Mr. Santorum said. "They will not stop until they destroy us or we destroy them."
Mr. Casey agreed that the U.S. must fight its enemies aggressively.
"We can't have a defensive war," he told the AP. "We've got to hunt terrorists down."
Mr. Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, continued to make the case for the United States to maintain its commitment to fighting terrorism overseas and at home, and reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil.
Mr. Santorum referred to what he said were multiple forces trying to undermine the United States as "the gathering storm" -- a phrase that is also the title of Churchill's memoir about the causes of World War II.
Mr. Santorum quoted the opening passage, in which Churchill, the onetime British leader, said English-speaking peoples "allowed the wicked to rearm."
The senator gave his 40-minute speech in the heart of Pennsylvania's conservative center, but will take it statewide on a two-day tour. Later yesterday, Mr. Santorum stopped at Valley Forge Military Academy, a company in Allentown and the Wyomissing Fire Department.
"I believe people in this community, as well as people throughout the central part of the state, understand this threat and are willing to listen to people who tell them the truth, as opposed to folks who want to just sleepwalk through this problem," he said.