The newspaper headlines are already emerging: "Pennsylvania Senate race a heavyweight battle . . . Santorum-Casey race expected to be expensive, 'ugly' . . . Pennsylvania Senate race will be one to watch in 2006 . . . Casey-Santorum boiling to surface."
The most celebrated and most expensive U.S. Senate race this year is likely to be in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Rick Santorum, who drew criticism from conservatives for backing pro-choice Republican Arlen Specter's reelection bid in 2004, stands poised to defend his own seat against a pro-life Democrat.
The most recent poll showed Bob Casey Jr. with a 12-point lead over the GOP's No. 3 leader in the Senate. The 45-year-old state treasurer rides on the prestige of his father, the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, but Mr. Santorum is hoping that Mr. Casey's silence on key issues will speak louder than his surname.
When Mr. Santorum challenged Mr. Casey to take a position on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, the state treasurer announced that he would reserve judgment until the end of the confirmation hearings. Critics dubbed him "Silent Bob," and the silence deepened once the hearings ended and Mr. Casey waited until Jan. 24 to announce support for Mr. Alito. Republicans tried to use that indecisiveness to alienate their opponent from his liberal Democratic base.
Mr. Casey had good reason to keep Judge Alito out of the picture. On the federal appellate bench, the judge sided with Bob Casey Sr. against Planned Parenthood in defending the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, which required women to notify their spouses before having abortions. Mr. Casey maintains his support for spousal notification as a way to decrease abortions, but he could not endorse President Bush's Supreme Court choice without angering pro-abortionists, and could not oppose him without upsetting socially conservative, economically liberal voters in western Pennsylvania.
While some high-pitched rhetoric suggests irreconcilable differences (Mr. Casey has called Mr. Santorum an "arrogant" politician pushing a "narrow ideology" and "partisan political extremism"), the opponents share much in common. Both acknowledge the strong impact of their Catholic faith on their civil duties. Both oppose embryonic stem-cell research but support stem-cell research not involving the destruction of embryos.
Both oppose gun control, oppose an early withdrawal from Iraq, and support the right of pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions that violate their conscience. However, Mr. Casey favors same-sex unions and disagrees with Mr. Santorum's push for a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage.
Mr. Santorum, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, continues to invite his opponent to public debates, but Mr. Casey stands by his decision to wait until after the primary election in May, where two little-known Philadelphia Democrats oppose him.
The Casey and Santorum websites illustrate one difference in campaign strategies. At www.bobcaseyforpa.com, the Casey positions are summarized under five headings, such as "veterans" and "seniors," and no mention is made of the abortion issue. Visitors to www.ricksantorum.com will see 13 (equally vague) categories, each with detailed descriptions of legislation Mr. Santorum has fought for. Under the "family" category, the site displays the senator's support for pro-life work.
Mr. Casey's tightrope act does not trivialize the difficulties facing Mr. Santorum as he seeks a third term in the 2006 election. The unapologetic attitude with which the senator has pushed his Christian conservative views, particularly his linking the legalization of gay marriage with the legalization of pedophilia, has incurred much venom from the left.
Meanwhile, his decision to endorse Arlen Specter in a 2004 primary against a conservative-a political maneuver designed to preserve a GOP Senate majority-has caused a cooling of support among his base.
This cool support may grow colder as Mr. Santorum makes moves that seem calculated to soften his image among moderates. He withdrew his membership from the board of the Thomas More Law Center, which defended the Dover School Board's right to teach Intelligent Design, and on Jan. 5 he wrote a letter to President Bush requesting the formation of a bipartisan panel to assess progress in Iraq. Recent party scandals, such as the illegal activities of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, might also hurt Mr. Santorum by association.
-Anthony Paul Mator is a World Journalism Institute fellow