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U.S. SENATE Democrats keep eye on Santorum



Published: Mon, January 24, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The third-ranking Senate GOP official will be seeking re-election.

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

PITTSBURGH -- On a rainy evening this month, Sen. Rick Santorum went to St. Paul's Seminary to deliver a lecture titled "Taking the Heat."

His topic echoed President Truman's admonition to fellow politicians, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." In the course of about an hour, Santorum demonstrated that he is comfortable with the heat -- indeed, happy to turn it up a few degrees.

That may be a good thing, for in a little more than a year, Santorum will be at the center of what promises to be the most watched, and potentially most expensive Senate race in the nation.

Santorum, who holds the No. 3 leadership post in the Senate GOP caucus, will be the highest-ranking Republican running for re-election in 2006. He is at the top of the target list for national Democrats and for liberal groups who brought unprecedented independent activity and fund raising to the 2004 presidential race.

"He's an especially tempting target because he's a member of the leadership," said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist and expert on Congress at Rutgers University. "He's a conservative Republican in a state carried by John Kerry."

But balancing his status as a lightning rod for Democratic opposition is the fact that Santorum has evolved into much more of a national figure than when he won his second term in 2000. With that national base comes a vastly enhanced ability to attract money, both for his own campaign committee and from independent groups on the conservative side.

Using the name from the tax code that governs them, Baker said, "The activity of the 527s was the great innovation of the last election. Barring some congressional action to reel them in, I can't imagine that they won't be active in [Santorum's] election."

And without the preoccupation of a presidential race, those 527s will have the potential to focus resources on races such as Santorum's to an unprecedented degree,

Endorsement of religion

Santorum's speech at St. Paul's was an endorsement of religion as an active force in politics, coupled with a recital of his battles against abortion on the floor of the Senate.

"What I'm concerned about is we have some in our society today who say you can come to the public square influenced by anything other than faith. If you are influenced by faith, somehow that is illegitimate and your faith can only be private," he explained shortly before he took the stage at the seminary. "I think that is a very dangerous thing because it leaves the public square with sort of a secular world."

Santorum's words were full of warnings about what he sees as the plight of people of faith besieged by the secular, leftist culture forces of the media.

His flailing of the left sparked a protest from one member of the audience of about 300.

"I am tired of this left and right destroying this country," a woman cried out from the back of the auditorium.

"I would agree with you on half of that," said an unapologetic Santorum.

Seeking his third term, Santorum will have the advantage of incumbency. To the consternation of many fellow conservatives, he is closely allied with his colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter.

Specter is positioned to help Santorum both with the senior senator's political base in eastern Pennsylvania and through his senior positions on the Appropriations Committee, which will allow him to aid Santorum in delivering the kinds of federal dollars and projects that incumbents love to take credit for.

Santorum also hopes to nurture and preserve the grass-roots volunteer base that boosted President Bush's vote total in the state compared to 2000, even though it fell just short of delivering Pennsylvania's electoral votes.

But Santorum will be a prime Democratic target not because of his leadership position and swing-state constituency, but because of perceptions of him as a combative, conservative ideologue. It is an image that brings passionate opposition countervailing his passionate support, and one that is at odds with the more moderate strain of Republicanism that still thrived in Pennsylvania even as the national GOP shifted to the right.

Several Democrats have voiced interest in challenging Santorum, but national party leaders are most ardently courting the candidacy of Bob Casey Jr., the state's new treasurer. In recent weeks, Casey has received numerous messages wooing him for the race from figures including Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader.




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