Pennsylvania GOP voters quit Gingrich for Santorum
It never pays to count Rick Santorum out.
A Tribune-Review/WPXI-TV poll conducted Feb. 2-6 shows the former senator was gaining strength among Pennsylvania Republicans even before this week's victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota that threaten to shake up the GOP presidential contest.
The statewide poll of 500 Republicans showed Santorum's support more than doubled from 14 percent six weeks ago to 30 percent, putting him in a statistical dead heat with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who increased his support to 29 percent from 18 percent. Santorum's gain was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's loss, as his numbers here plunged from 35 percent to 13 percent.
But Pennsylvania Republicans still consider Santorum a long shot in November. More than half of them (55 percent) said Romney is the candidate most likely to beat President Obama.
Alone among the four Republican hopefuls, Romney was about even with Obama, with 45 percent to the president's 43 percent, in a head-to-head matchup in a poll of 800 Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania. Against Santorum, Obama was slightly ahead, 47 percent to 43 percent, among that group in the poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percent.
James Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, which conducted the poll, said Santorum's growing strength among Republicans suggests conservatives are tuning in to the race.
"Rick speaks their language. They believe he's the real deal, but they seem to draw the line when it comes to moving on to the fall," Lee said. "They don't seem to think he's electable. That's the real conundrum he's in: How does he persuade mainstream voters he's the guy who can win in November?"
Santorum offered an answer Tuesday night at a victory celebration in St. Charles, Mo. As he greeted cheering supporters, he declared Romney and Obama are one and the same "on issues ranging from health care to Wall Street bailouts."
Adviser John Brabender said Santorum was buoyed by the uptick in his poll numbers as well as his recent victories. Although Santorum has yet to win a major primary, Brabender said it would be a mistake to dismiss him.
"What's important to us is not the delegate count, but the perception that he can and should be the nominee. Given a one-on-one shot at Mitt Romney, he can be the nominee," Brabender said.
Initially considered a longshot candidate in the GOP presidential primary, Santorum, 53, has won as the underdog before. He came out of nowhere in 1990 to beat a seven-term incumbent in a heavily Democratic Western Pennsylvania congressional district and went on to beat incumbent Democrat Harris Wofford to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1994.
Many were prepared to write off the fiery social conservative when he lost his Senate seat to Bob Casey Jr. in 2006. But Santorum, who lives in northern Virginia with his wife and seven children, began laying the foundation for a presidential bid in 2010.
He lost major contests in Florida and South Carolina to Romney and Gingrich last month. But he picked up steam staking out a position as the conservative running against Obama, while Gingrich and Romney attacked one another.
Lee predicted the combination of Santorum's victories in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado, the nonbinding primary in Missouri and his growing numbers in Pennsylvania will embolden him.
"But the next four weeks are critical to Rick Santorum," Lee said. "He's got four weeks to raise the money to compete in the Super Tuesday states."
Although Santorum was best known in Congress as a cultural warrior for social and religious conservatives, Pennsylvania Republicans who identified jobs and the economy as their top priority this year said they are looking to him to rein in government spending and provide leadership on economic issues.
Lynne Rockwell, 48, a Republican from Bucks County, called Santorum's conservative positions in foreign policy and government spending his strongest selling points.
"I think a lot of people didn't know about him, but now he's getting the traction he needs. We need someone to get rid of Obamacare. My company is going to get rid of health care in 2014 because it's cheaper to pay the penalty and abandon health care than it is to offer it under Obamacare," said Rockwell, a claims adjuster.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Santorum is picking up GOP voters who have not bought in to Romney's campaign.
"It doesn't have as much to do with Santorum as it does with Romney, in that conservative Republicans just aren't buying what he's selling now," Kondik said.
Chris Lentz, 50, of Kittanning describes himself as a social and fiscal conservative. He considers Ron Paul "just a great guy."
"But it seems like (the candidates) are all just fighting among themselves, and maybe Santorum will be the guy who can pull them all together," he said.
John Eliyas, 47, a Republican from Trafford, was pleased to see Santorum gaining strength. The social services agency director and father of two said he's swung from Gingrich to Santorum.
"But to be honest with you, I'd vote for anyone running against Obama," he said. "The government is just a lot too big and it spends too much."