In presidential politics as in life, you can’t always count on the hometown crowd for support. Presidential candidates reaching back to Thomas Dewey, George McGovern and Al Gore lost their home states or adopted states in losing presidential causes.
Earlier this year, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney romped to victory with 72 percent of the vote in the Bay State’s Republican primary, but struggled to eke out a three-percentage point victory in Michigan, where he was born and reared and where his father once was governor. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich scored one of his two Republican primary victories this year in his adopted state of Georgia, but he has virtually no chance of winning next month in his birth state of Pennsylvania.
Logically, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum should win big in the Keystone State, which repeatedly elected him and sent him back to the House and Senate over 16 years. Indeed, polling shows Santorum with a double-digit lead over Romney and Gingrich heading towards the April 24 primary. A Quinnipiac University poll on March 14 showed Santorum with the support of 36 percent of the Republicans interviewed, compared to 22 percent for Romney.
Yet some experts say Santorum could still blow it in Pennsylvania, a must-win industrial state, just as he narrowly lost to his nemesis Romney in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. Santorum is certain to perform well in western and central Pennsylvania, a highly conservative blue-collar region that has long responded well to his political and social conservative messages.
A REGIONAL SPLIT
But his strong anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-gay marriage rhetoric and combative nature is costing him considerable support in the heavily populated Philadelphia suburbs and Allentown-Lehigh Valley area, where Romney’s more moderate, less ideological rhetoric is resonating with independents and more moderate Republicans. We have seen this demographic and geographic divide between Santorum and Romney numerous times throughout the three months of primary voting, and more often than not it has worked to Romney’s advantage. Pennsylvania’s Republican political establishment, including former Gov. Tom Ridge, three members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation who served with Santorum, and the Allegheny County Republican chair are all backing Romney.
“If Romney spends time and money in this state I think he can make Pennsylvania competitive,” said Terry Madonna, a political professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “Pennsylvania is not Louisiana, it’s not Mississippi, it’s not Alabama. Its Republican base of voters is much more moderate, especially east of the Susquehanna River, when you get into the Philadelphia suburbs and into Lehigh Valley.”
“These voters are not culturally conservative,” Madonna added. “The way Santorum has veered off into these social and cultural questions will be problematic for him in those areas.” By the way, Santorum failed to these areas carry the last time he ran statewide in Pennsylvania, in 2006.
Santorum desperately needs a big win in a large industrial state like Pennsylvania to demonstrate he has something more than regional appeal to far right conservatives. He has racked up a few victories in the west and upper northwest, but he has been strongest in southern states.
Over the weekend, Santorum beat Romney, 147 to 91, in a straw poll sponsored by the Pennsylvania Leadership Council, a group of 55 conservative and business groups from across the state.” Lowman Henry, president of the council, told The Fiscal Times Monday that Santorum would almost certainly win the presidential beauty contest, but that Romney with a superior ground organization “might have a leg up in the delegate contest.”
“Pennsylvania voters are very parochial,” Brian Nutt, Santorum’s state director, told Reuters. “And what Rick Santorum has proven time and time again [in] his races is he is a tireless campaigner. He understands the values and issues that are important to Pennsylvania’s many regions.”
WAR OF THE WORDS
Santorum has done little to mask his disdain for Romney. He has dismissed the clear frontrunner as potentially the worst Republican to go up against President Obama this fall because he and Obama took similar stands on health care reform. On Sunday, Santorum called Romney "the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” He later lashed out at reporters, saying they were “distorting” his speech.
If Santorum were to lose Pennsylvania to Romney, he would almost certainly come under increased pressure from Republican leaders and contributors to fold up his tent and get behind Romney. Otherwise he would be criticized for undermining Republican chances of beating Obama this fall. And the news media would write him off as the last in a long line of conservative pretenders to the nomination who fell by the wayside. Romney enjoys a better than 2 to 1 advantage over Santorum in delegates, and better than five or six to one in fund raising and campaign spending.
Few political experts have followed Santorum’s career as long or in as much depth as Madonna, dating back to the 1980s, when a youthful Santorum was an aide to a Republican state senator named Doyle Corman.
Santorum, 53, was elected to the House from the 18th Congressional district in 1990 and was a player after Gingrich led a GOP takeover of the House in 1994, especially in pressing for major welfare reform. He was elected to the Senate in 1994 and served there until he lost a reelection bid to Democrat Bob Casey in 2006 by 18 percentage points.
Madonna said that Santorum is stubborn, and “I think he’ll hang in there until he’s convinced that Romney has 1,144 delegates – the magic number to win the nomination.”
“He’s undaunted, he’s fearless, he doesn’t have any quit in him,” Madonna said of Santorum. “He’s supremely confident that he’s right; he believes what he says. He’s not a hypocrite, and media folks have made that mistake by thinking because they don’t agree with him, that no one can say the things he says and believes in them.”
“There’s no wiggle room with him on these issues,” Madonna said.