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Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006

The news of Rick Santorum's political death may have been greatly exaggerated. He has not won re-election yet but he has gained traction. The junior senator of Pennsylvania has gone from being tagged as DOA to being within striking distance.

And he did it the old-fashioned way: retail politics -- reaching out to the electorate one on one.

Democrat challenger Bob Casey Jr.'s 18-point lead over the Penn Hills Republican has diminished. Not vanished, mind you -- Casey is still ahead by 6 to 7 points in recent polls -- but the momentum clearly is on the side of the senator.

But why?

Bob Casey has it all and he is the perfect guinea pig for Democrats to test drive in that political microcosm known as Pennsylvania. Red and blue counties neatly replicate the infamous state-by-state 2000 electoral map.

Casey, with his name as a point-grabbing commodity, is a conservative (by Democrat standards) handpicked to spoil Santorum's re-election. At least that was the thinking nearly two years ago, when Democrat leaders picked him -- the perfect choice, born weeks after John Kerry's losing presidential run.

Now, not so much so.

You see, Ned Lamont, victor over Sen. Joe Lieberman in this month's U.S. Senate primary in Connecticut, has made it unfashionable to be anything but progressive. Moderate (let alone, conservative) Democrat candidates need to move to the back of the party bus.

Casey is not a moderate Democrat; on social and hawk issues, he is as conservative as you get without being a Republican.

Regarding the Iraq war, he has stopped short of calling for all-out withdrawal, believing that our country should achieve victory and stabilize the Iraqi government. Although late to comment, he finally came out in support of the appointment of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court and he was supportive of the renewal of the USA Patriot Act.

All are positions unfortunate for him in this re-minted McGovern era in the Democratic Party.

So how does the party come out a-hootin' and a-hollerin' for the likes of Ned Lamont while vigorously supporting Casey, who is 10 times more conservative than Lieberman?

If Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli is able to get on Pennsylvania's ballot, then Casey really has a problem: Romanelli supports a woman's right to an abortion.

Do the likes of Kate Michelman, resident Pennsylvanian and former president of the National Association of Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), and her pro-choice peers hold their noses and vote for Casey• Do they go against everything that they have ever stood for, everything they've worked for in terms of keeping the government out of their bedrooms?

How bitterly hypocritical if they do. That's putting party before principles, instantly forsaking their card-carrying rights in the women's movement.

Voters finally are beginning to focus on the Senate race and the fact that Casey is not talking issues. Ask your average Pennsylvanian where Casey stands on the war in Iraq and recent polling shows the majority of people don't have a clue.

Plus, every day that Casey spends outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is a loss for him -- which makes you wonder why he is all over Central Pennsylvania.

Senate races are about issues. Governor races are about personality. Luckily for Santorum, he has both a strong conviction on issues and a strong personality.

Clearly, the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows why Democrats are so determined to go after the Green Party: Every one of its votes is a Casey vote. And the Greens' ballot presence makes this race no longer an equation of 50 percent plus 1 but a matter of a plurality.

Remember, that's how Santorum and Tom Ridge both won in 1994 -- not with a majority but with a plurality.

All of those retail-politics baby steps are putting Santorum within striking distance.

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