Washington Notebook

March 10, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 10

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The pro-life movement is becoming more demanding. The candidates are going to have to put some walk in their talk."

Peg Luksik,
the Constitution Party's candidate for Pennsylvania governor in 1994 and 1998


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Catholic pro-lifers face-off in Pennsylvania

By Joe Feuerherd

One thing has already been decided in what is shaping up to be the most combative political race of 2006, says Pennsylvania politics watcher Al Neri, editor of The Insider, a biweekly newsletter that tracks politics in the Keystone State. Whoever of the two candidates is victorious, Pennsylvania will be represented in the Senate by a politically shrewd pro-life 40-something devout Roman Catholic.

On the Republican side is two-term Sen. Rick Santorum, the 47-year-old leader of the Senate's social conservatives and the highest-ranking Republican in that body likely to face a serious challenge next year. Santorum, who shepherded the ban on "partial birth abortion" through Congress and coauthored the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, is a hero to the right -- and particularly to the Catholic right. Long-rumored to be a member of Opus Dei, Santorum says that is not the case, though he acknowledges affection for the group's controversial founder, St. Josemaria Escriva.

In the Democratic corner is State Treasurer Robert Casey Jr., the Holy Cross College-educated eldest child of the late and much-beloved, two-term governor. Nationally, Casey Senior was every pro-life Republican's favorite Democratic. In a move widely seen as a slap at those who deviate from Democratic orthodoxy on abortion, the elder Casey was denied the opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

That unpleasantness has apparently been forgiven -- trumped by the pragmatism of unseating Santorum, whose defeat would warm Democratic hearts far beyond Pennsylvania's borders. A recent poll showed Casey as the only Pennsylvania Democrat leading Santorum.

The current Casey, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps veteran, shares his father's antiabortion outlook, which didn't stop top Democrats, including Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., from recruiting him to oppose Santorum. National Democrats have promised large sums to fund what will likely be the most expensive campaign in state history. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has cleared the field for Casey, dissuading potential opponents in a Democratic primary from challenging the Scranton native.

Does a pro-life Democratic nominee neutralize the abortion issue? Santorum doesn't seem to think so. In a March 10 conference call with members of the Catholic media, Santorum posed this question: "Who's going to be out there leading the charge and making a difference?" He plans to contrast his "leadership on these issues" and emphasize that it is a Republican Senate, where he holds the leadership post of caucus chair, which will approve the judges appointed by the president. Casey, it is suggested, will be lonely and ineffective amid his largely pro-choice colleagues.

Pennsylvania pro-lifers, said Peg Luksik, are "in a good place politically." Luksik, running as a pro-lifer in a pro-choice field, got more than 300,000 votes as the Constitution Party's 1998 gubernatorial nominee. She received more than 400,000 votes -- 13 percent of all those cast -- when she ran in 1994. "The pro-life movement is becoming more demanding. The candidates are going to have to put some walk in their talk."

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Santorum upset pro-life purists earlier this year when he endorsed and supported the primary bid of his pro-choice colleague, Arlen Specter. Now overseeing court nominees as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter eeked out a win against pro-life Congressman Pat Toomey.

"Bob Casey [Sr.] put his convictions before his party loyalties," says Luksik, while Santorum "put party loyalty before his convictions."

A key for Casey, says Neri, is to make the election a referendum on Santorum. "He will try to paint Santorum as too conservative for the state." Santorum has embraced the president's vision for Social Security, a dangerous place to be in a state with more seniors than any other except Florida. Casey, meanwhile, is pro-labor and will have strong union support.

The personality factor could be key. The knock on Casey is that he's an uninspired campaigner - his lackluster effort in the 2002 gubernatorial primary resulted in Philadelphia's Rendell taking the statehouse. Santorum, by contrast, is a lightening rod, particularly for Democratic activists.

"He does seem to generate visceral hatred from some people - more so than [other] people who hold identical views on abortion and gay marriage," says Francis Graham Lee, chairman of the political science department at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University. "They call him 'Sanctimonious Santorum.' "

And then there's Pennsylvania's Catholic hierarchy, widely perceived as having tilted not-so-subtly toward George W. Bush in the last two presidential races.

"For the hierarchy, if they really believe in the consistent pro-life agenda, then Casey's your man," says Villanova University economist Chuck Zech. "On the other hand, this could be a matter of returning the favor [to Santorum], though it's hard to believe they'd do so with the same sort of enthusiasm they'd have if his opponent wasn't pro-life."

The election is November 2006. Returning Santorum to the Senate will be the Republicans' No. 1 objective; removing him the Democrats' top priority.

With the two candidates agreeing on abortion, it will be fascinating to watch where the fight develops.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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