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Santorum-Casey Race Heats Up Early

The curtain is rising on a pitched political drama in Pennsylvania featuring the parties' brightest stars, big sums of money and two well-known candidates for Senate — who in turn are trading charges of negative campaign tactics. And it's not even 2006 yet.

More than nine months out, Sen. Rick Santorum and his likely Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., have begun what's expected to be one of the nation's most-watched races of the midterm elections. Jabbing at each other in interviews, the two are crisscrossing the state for potluck dinners and running Internet ads as they prepare for an expected $50 million political brawl.

Santorum, No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership lineup, is seeking a third term with a campaign that has so far has been lagging behind. Casey has the added recognition of the namesake of his father, the late popular Gov. Bob Casey.

Santorum isn't being helped much by a national Republican Party with tattered coattails. Bruised by recent scandals including the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Republicans aim to keep a tight hold on Congress as Democrats burnish their own message, "We can do better."

Nationally, Democrats have their sights on Santorum, considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for re-election. On social issues in particular, he has alienated many swing voters in the battleground state. A poll in December by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University poll showed Santorum trailing 12 points behind Casey — up five points from an earlier survey.

To Democrats, Santorum presents an opportunity to take out a senior senator of the other party — just as Republican John Thune did in South Dakota last year when he upset then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Democrats haven't elected a Pennsylvanian to a full term in the Senate since 1962.

For his part, Santorum said he considers the Democrats' determination to kick him out a badge of honor.

"If I wasn't effective in what I was doing and if I wasn't making a difference here, if I wasn't someone who threatened their liberal ideology, then they wouldn't be bothering with me," Santorum told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I see that as a plus, not a minus."

Casey is the son of the popular late Gov. Bob Casey. Like Santorum, he's in his 40s, Catholic and against abortion.

But their styles and messages differ in many important respects.

Santorum's blunt statements on issues ranging from abortion to public schools often have provoked the wrath of liberals. Expect him to focus on his clout in Washington and his proven willingness to take a stand rather than waffle on difficult issues.

Casey's low-key delivery style may have hurt him on the 2002 campaign trail in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against now-Gov. Ed Rendell. Look for him to burnish an image as the less divisive candidate, untainted by Washington politics and with a record of fighting waste and fraud in Harrisburg.

Santorum said he expects to raise at least $25 million; Casey said he anticipates raising an amount "in the same neighborhood," which would make it the most expensive Senate race in Pennsylvania. In recent state history, the most expensive Senate race was last year's, which incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter won when candidates together spent more than $26 million.

Both camps expect the polls to tighten as more money is spent on the next campaign.

Indeed, Santorum's poll numbers have rebounded after a decline through the summer and fall. A combination of factors contributed to the slump: his support of President Bush's unpopular Social Security plan, the publication of his book "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good," and his effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive in the Florida end-of-life case, said Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

With Santorum's numbers rising and Casey facing primary opponents in May, Madonna said, Casey will likely have to start speaking more directly to voters on where he stands. Santorum, on the other hand, is likely to start speaking more on what he's delivered for Pennsylvania, Madonna said.

For now, Casey continues to remind voters of Santorum's connections to Bush. And Bush's popularity — which has improved in recent weeks — could be a factor in the election.

Santorum said he has mostly voted for policies backed by Bush because, as a member of the GOP leadership, he helped craft the agenda presented to the administration.

Casey told the AP that voters want a senator focused on Pennsylvania priorities.

"What they see with Senator Santorum time and again is a lot of ideology and special interests," Casey said. "That's why people are demanding change."

The Senate race isn't the only one garnering national attention in Pennsylvania. A handful of the state's House races are also considered competitive — particularly the likely matchup in the Philadelphia-area district between two-term Rep. Jim Gerlach and attorney Lois Murphy, who narrowly lost to him in 2004. Rendell also could have a fight on his hands.

In the primary, Casey faces two lesser-known Philadelphia Democrats — college professor Chuck Pennacchio and pension lawyer Alan Sandals.

But it's the November race that has the attention of the Democrats and Republicans, who have been dispatching all-stars to Pennsylvania to help with fundraising.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Arizona Sen. John McCain have had fundraisers for Santorum; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry have aided Casey.

The Santorum camp has already accused Casey of running a negative campaign, and not taking a stand on issues.

The Casey campaign filed an federal election complaint against a third-party group that has run ads in support of Santorum, and called on Santorum to ask the group who its donors are.