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The race tightens

| Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006

A Tribune-Review poll shows Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum closing the gap against Democratic challenger Robert P. Casey Jr., in a contest many analysts see as the nation's premier Senate race.

The Keystone Poll of 551 Pennsylvania voters shows Casey, the state treasurer from Scranton, leading Santorum, of Penn Hills, by five percentage points -- 44 to 39 percent. Green Party nominee Carl Romanelli, a former Luzerne County family court officer, garnered 4 percent, and 13 percent of respondents were undecided.

The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points, was conducted over five days beginning last week and ending Monday.

"Santorum is sort of scratching and clawing his way" into contention, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster County, who conducted the poll for the Trib and several other news media outlets. In November, Casey led Santorum by 51 to 35 percent.

"It's still probably the premier race, because Santorum is the number-three Republican in the Senate and he's a national figure," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, D.C. But Rothenberg does not consider it one of the two or three most competitive Senate contests and still calls it a "Democrat-leaning" race.

"You've still got an incumbent in deep, deep trouble," he said.

The poll showed 37 percent of Pennsylvania voters held an unfavorable view of Santorum, exceeded only by President Bush, at 57 percent. Twenty percent of voters viewed Casey unfavorably.

Casey's unfavorable rating -- a barometer pollsters and campaigns use to gauge public dissatisfaction with a candidate -- jumped from 13 percent as a result of TV ads attacking him, Madonna said.

Madonna attributed Santorum's gains to his multimillion-dollar advertising blitz and Romanelli's entry into the race. Santorum's campaign helped Romanelli gather signatures for nominating petitions, which Democrats are challenging in court.

"I think the ads this summer have made the difference in closing this up," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Santorum spent about $680,000 on TV ads in the Pittsburgh market from early July through Wednesday.

Casey, who airs his first statewide TV ad today, spent about $207,000 during the same period, according to figures compiled by the Trib.

"Santorum has simply owned the airwaves," Borick said.

Still, Bush's relative unpopularity and the weakness of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Lynn Swann are hurting Santorum, Rothenberg suggested.

By a margin of 46 to 28 percent, voters told pollsters they believe Santorum supports Bush's policies too often. Only one in three voters (33 percent) believes the president is doing a good or excellent job, the poll showed.

"Early on, there was some hope among Republicans that Swann would catch fire," Rothenberg said.

The poll showed Democratic incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell leading Swann by 19 points -- 53 to 34 percent, with 13 percent undecided.

Swann began his TV advertising campaign Monday.

"Anyone who thinks this is a 19-point race is hallucinating," said Swann spokesman Lenny Alcivar.

Santorum spokeswoman Virginia Davis said the Keystone Poll is the "fourth poll in the last two weeks to show that the gap is narrowing." She called it "a trend in favor of Santorum."

Casey spokesman Larry Smar said the challenger has acknowledged "all along that the horse race is going to tighten."

Rendell's bid for re-election has been solidified by his media campaign this summer, Borick said. "He's placed himself in a really solid position going into the home stretch of the election season."

Borick said the poll reinforces a perception that "Swann has really struggled to get a surge that can help him make this race more competitive."

Swann needs to "find an issue voters care about and spend eight or nine weeks banging away," Madonna said.

Dan Fee, Rendell's spokesman, said, "We're pleased voters are responding so strongly to the governor's record of accomplishment and vision for a second term."

Alcivar said, "Lynn Swann has what Ed Rendell doesn't -- a vision for the future of Pennsylvania."

Additional Information:

Tribune-Review/ WTAE-Channel 4 Keystone Poll

Here are the full results of a survey of 551 registered voters done by the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Respondents were interviewed Aug. 16-21 at Franklin & Marshall. The poll has a margin of error or plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
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