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Santorum slips in Pennsylvania, survey finds

Rick Santorum appeared to be the Republican presidential candidate to beat in Pennsylvania a month ago.

With the state primary four weeks away, Santorum now finds himself nearly tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among the state's Republicans, and support is eroding rapidly, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll out today.

"The real Rick Santorum has emerged," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

"Santorum ran a disciplined campaign for eight months, but a month ago he began veering off message into all these cultural and social issues," Madonna said, referring to flare-ups over women in combat and contraceptives. "That may help with his core voters, but they're already with him. This is supposed to be about expanding your base."

The poll of 505 registered Republican voters, conducted March 20-25 in conjunction with the Tribune-Review and other media outlets, shows Santorum clinging to a small lead over Romney, 30 percent to 28 percent, within the poll's 4.2 percent margin of error.

That's a big change from February, when Santorum, once a U.S. senator from Penn Hills, held a commanding 29-percentage-point lead over Romney in the poll.

"I was really rooting for Santorum because he's from Pennsylvania, but I switched over to Romney because I think he has a better chance of beating Obama and that he'd do a better job of running this country like a business," said poll participant Rick Bierer, 51, a factory worker from Ford City.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Green Tree native, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who grew up near Harrisburg, are a distant third and fourth in today's poll.

The poll shows a worsening public opinion of Santorum. His favorability rating of 54 percent is down from 65 percent a month ago, although that remains higher than the 46 percent rating for Romney, the national front-runner.

"It's going to be pretty tough for (Santorum) to reverse this, especially given Romney's delegate lead," Madonna said. Romney has support from 569 delegates, more than twice as many as Santorum's 262. The GOP nominee needs 1,144 delegates.

Many votes remain up for grabs. Almost a quarter of Pennsylvania Republicans -- 24 percent -- don't know who they're voting for in the April 24 primary, up slightly from a month ago, the poll said.

"I'm torn between Santorum and Romney. I'm probably leaning toward Romney because I think he has a better chance of beating Obama," said Katherine Maurer, 72, a legal secretary from Washington.

What voters are looking for in a candidate appears to be changing as the primary draws closer. About 26 percent of respondents consider moral character the most important quality, down from 36 percent a month ago. About 25 percent regard a candidate's perceived ability to beat Obama in November as the most important quality, up from 18 percent in February.

"The business of beating Obama is becoming more relevant," Madonna said.

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