Who's that guy?

Santorum is a mean-spirited corporate tool, but he won't play one on TV

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Viewers, grab your remotes. Even though it's only June, a faltering but well-funded Rick Santorum has launched his statewide TV campaign to retain his U.S. Senate seat, vowing to keep it coming until the election.

He can afford it, too -- $8.8 million in campaign funds will buy a lot of air time. The ads are bound to drive countless Pennsylvania residents to channel-surfing, TiVo and DVD-only viewing. Good thing this is summer re-run season, when it's hardly worth turning on the set anyway.

The early kick-off says a lot about Mr. Santorum's imperiled position, but it also portends exploitation of the opposition's weaknesses.

A new Quinnipiac University poll released last week found voters preferring Bob Casey Jr., the state treasurer and Democratic challenger, over Mr. Santorum by a chasm of 52 to 34 percent. It's an early lead that will likely narrow by November, but in any light it looks very bad for the incumbent.

The Republican's problem is that voters know him too well, and they don't like what they see. After 12 years in office, he has solidified his image as an intolerant, right-wing scold and buttinsky who conveniently ignores his own preaching when it suits him, and the best friend that corporate interests ever had.

As a result, his approval rating is down to 38 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 35 percent. Clearly, some repackaging is in order, and if the first ad is any indicator, he'll be making himself into a great defender of the American way of life. Viewers will do well to remember the things his multimillion-dollar campaign wants them to forget.

Mr. Santorum fashions himself a warrior for Christ, then stands with his boot on the neck of a wage hike for the nation's poorest workers and still has the nerve to lecture them about family values -- even as he collects his own federally guaranteed pay raise every year.

He preaches the gospel of personal responsibility while frolicking neck-deep in the K Street lobbying cesspool and denying that there's anything unethical about it.

He won his first election to Congress by attacking Rep. Doug Walgren as a carpetbagger who lived outside his district. When he became a senator, he did the same thing, all the while claiming it was entirely different.

Having moved to Virginia, this champion of reduced government spending still gamed the taxpayers of Penn Hills for $100,000 of his children's cyberschool tuition. He also sent the Capitol police to his unoccupied Penn Hills house to "protect" his absent family from imagined threats.

Overriding these negatives, not to mention the Terri Shiavo fiasco, won't be easy. As Clay F. Richards of Quinnipiac's polling institute, put it, "Sen. Santorum appears to be his own worst enemy in his battle for re-election."

But the race has only begun, and Democrats must remember this. If there's anything that abhors a vacuum more than nature, it's a political campaign. And the same poll that put Mr. Casey so far ahead also identified a problem: 42 percent said they hadn't heard enough about him to rate him favorably or unfavorably.

That 42 percent is Mr. Casey's danger ground, and the Santorum camp is already seeding it with stink weed and poison ivy, calling him "Bobby Casey, a pay-grabbin', work-skippin' liberal political opportunist."

It's a risk for the GOP, but it could pay off. Pennsylvania voters liked Bob Casey Sr. as governor and clearly are inclined to give his son the benefit of the doubt even when they don't know much about him. But mudslinging often works, when it doesn't backfire.

Mr. Casey's no political novice. He's won statewide election three times -- twice as auditor general, then the treasurer's post in 2004. He must know the GOP can do a lot of damage with all those millions. And now that he's up against the full-scale Republican apparatus in one of nation's most closely watched races, it's doubly important that he get out and there and till that ground himself.

If the Casey camp's daily missives to reporters are any guide, they know what the message has to be: Where Rick Santorum preaches, punishes and divides, Bob Casey listens, supports and unites. But how will he get that message out with a campaign fund half the size of Mr. Santorum's?

Mr. Casey has other obstacles. Social moderates and liberals are not happy with his anti-abortion politics, which is tamping down their enthusiasm for the candidate. But his campaign is finally taking pains to highlight all the other ways in which Mr. Casey champions women and families in contrast to Mr. Santorum: backing up the family values rhetoric with support for a minimum wage hike and the rights of working people; respecting individual privacy on birth control and end-of-life issues; understanding the necessity of two-paycheck families and day care funding for their children.

The Casey campaign hasn't said when it will launch its own TV spots or what they will contain. Heaven knows the Santorum record offers plenty to attack, but if Mr. Casey is going to withstand the GOP assault himself, he needs to fix his image before Rick Santorum does it for him.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1610.


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