Will the real Bob Casey please speak up?
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Last April, I wrote a column posing two questions for Robert P. Casey Jr., the likely Democratic nominee in this year's U.S. Senate race. When was he going to launch a serious campaign to dislodge Rick Santorum? And, as a socially conservative Democrat, how was he going to differentiate himself from the two-term Republican scold on touchy issues that cut both ways in this state?
Eleven months later, still no answers. That is bad news for Pennsylvania voters who are itching to send the Maestro of K Street packing.
As far as I can tell, Mr. Casey's campaign consists mainly of raising money and firing off e-mail salvos of the "I'm not Rick" variety -- I'm not a shill for corrupt lobbyists like he is, I won't preach morality while having none like he does, etc.
The Santorum camp has been trying to goad him into saying what he is. But with a 14-point lead in the last poll, Mr. Casey doesn't seem to feel the need. Thus, no press conferences, town meetings, local rallies or photo-ops, no hand-shaking or baby-kissing or appealing to voters on the issues.
That will have to change soon. Sen. Santorum is a fierce campaigner who's raised more money than Mr. Casey and will likely continue to do so. That means the polling gap stands to narrow as the election nears.
And as Bob Casey knows very well, social moderates and liberals of both parties would much rather have a Santorum opponent whose views are closer to their own.
That's why his left flank has been rising up in rebellion. Kate Michelman, former director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, briefly floated an independent candidacy, and two feminist groups are backing a primary challenge by the liberal Alan Sandals, a pension lawyer from Philadelphia. Another liberal challenger, Chuck Pennacchio, has been out there sniping as well.
Financially, Mr. Casey has no serious opposition in the primary. But in a midterm general election where turnout tends to be low, he's going to have to get out the vote big time. The Republican base is certain to show up. How is he going to get the Democratic base to do the same?
Unless he's writing off those votes, which would be spectacularly wrong-headed, ducking the issues won't work. It's already out there that he opposes abortion and would have voted to confirm John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. He's going to have to give those voters other positive reasons to support him.
How nuanced is his stance on reproductive rights, for example? Some politicians are personally opposed to abortion but won't inflict those beliefs on others. If that's not the case for him, what happens if the next president nominates a Supreme Court candidate thought to be "pro-choice"? Would that influence Mr. Casey's vote either way?
Does his definition of "pro-life" include support for prevention measures like birth control and the morning-after pill? What about teaching real sexual education in the schools, as opposed to the abstinence-only measures that studies show to be ineffective? How about federal funding for clinics that provide pap smears, breast exams and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases? Would he cut off that money if a clinic made abortion referrals?
Would Mr. Casey vote to restore funding for the United Nations Population Fund that Bush and the Republican congress have blocked over baseless charges that the fund backs forced abortions in China? The fund builds and equips maternity clinics in the world's poorest countries, trains midwives and reduces deaths from preventable disease. Is that a mission he can wholeheartedly support?
Betsy Magley, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Pittsburgh, said she has no idea what Mr. Casey thinks about these things.
"I have heard nothing about his platform from him or his campaign," she said. "And in my personal life, I'm pretty politically active."
Bob Casey Jr. can distinguish himself from Rick Santorum in other ways. What's his take on President Bush's faith-based initiative funneling millions of dollars to religious groups? Or the intelligent design subterfuge that seeks to insert religion into science classes in the public schools? Or warrantless wiretaps and indefinite incarceration of detainees without charges or legal counsel? Or outsourcing torture and censoring photos of soldiers returning home from Iraq in coffins?
And we haven't even gotten to the Iraq war. Or the health insurance industry's unconscionable profits, which must rival global outsourcing as a cause of worker layoffs and cutbacks. Or meaningful reform of lobbying regulations.
Mr. Casey isn't the only candidate keeping quiet about issues. Lynn Swann, who wants to unseat Gov. Ed Rendell, hasn't put forth any platform either, and just by keeping his mouth shut he's closing the gap. But Gov. Rendell, too, is a formidable opponent. At some point, Mr. Swann will flash more than his smile and his Super Bowl ring.
In Bob Casey Jr.'s case, the sooner the better. Sen. Santorum has never been more vulnerable, but if his opponent wants to be no things to all people, some of the votes he needs in November could spend election day at home.
First Published March 26, 2006 12:00 am