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By KIMBERLY HEFLING
Rick Santorum has spent 12 years in the Senate — and millions of dollars on TV ads for a third term. Yet a lot of Pennsylvania voters just plain don’t like him.
Polls show Santorum’s approval rating is in the 30s, just about what it was a year ago. Roughly the same number of voters view him unfavorably as favorably.
Questions over the use of Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for the cyber schooling of his six children in Virginia continue to dog him. Anger lingers over comments he made in a book last year criticizing some working parents, as well as statements he made in opposition to same-sex marriage and in support of keeping Terri Schiavo alive.
"Santorum’s real problem is Santorum," said Clay Richards, a Quinnipiac University pollster.
A confident politician with youthful good looks, Santorum is banking on his reputation as a hard worker who brings home the federal dollars, and the clout he has as the No. 3 Senate Republican. Pennsylvania is a Democratic-leaning state, and working for votes is nothing new to him.
He frequently boasts that with him, you at least know where he stands on issues.
Some GOP candidates are distancing themselves from President Bush, but Santorum said he’s not. "Just because the president is down in the polls, I’m not someone who is going to walk away from him," he said.
In a tactical nod to his unpopularity, Santorum’s campaign has run positive TV ads in an attempt to soften his image. In a funny one titled "Polka," he bumps into a woman on a dance floor who thanks him for what he does and then tells him, "Move it or lose it."
He’s sponsored women’s forums and has a section on his campaign Web site, "I heard it around the water cooler," that attempts to debunk some perceptions about him.
His strategy is also to question the integrity of state treasurer Bob Casey, his Democratic opponent who has a lead in the polls.
Santorum has run harsh TV ads attempting to link Casey to corruption. He’s also accused Casey of relying on the name of his father, the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, to get elected. He’s said Casey doesn’t take tough stands on issues and avoids debates, even though Casey has already done one and has agreed to three more.
To make his point at a forum this week sponsored by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Santorum pushed an empty chair across the stage even though there was already one there for him next to "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl, the forum moderator.
After discussing the threat of Iran, a frequent subject he broaches these days, he turned to the empty chair and said, "I’d like to hear what my opponent has to say about this." The crowd of several hundred laughed and applauded.
"I think I owe you, the people of Pennsylvania. I owe them my best. I owe them my energy, my passion, my conviction," Santorum said at the forum.
It’s a message that has appealed to some voters like Janet Planutis, 62, a hospital dietary worker in Hazelton, Pa. The Democrat said she’s likely going to vote for Santorum because of his tough stand against illegal immigration. She said she’s seen a more positive side of him in ads, although she doesn’t like his negative ads.
"To me, he sounded and looked arrogant in the past. His political advertising makes him look a little less so lately," Planutis said. "I’m really surprising myself. I never voted for him in the past. I am leaning towards voting for him."
Casey answered one of Santorum’s attack ads with one featuring Gov. Ed Rendell calling the ad "trash." Another says Santorum’s "record and his attack ads are a disgrace."
In TV ads, Casey has reminded voters about Santorum’s book, in which he wrote that both parents shouldn’t work outside the home if they can survive on one income. The Casey campaign has also dumped hundreds of unflattering clips of Santorum on YouTube, a Web site that usually features wacky videos. In appearances and in ads, Casey reminds voters that Santorum votes with the president 98 percent of the time.
Democrats are counting on voters like Steve Hutton, 55, a Democrat who owns a nursery in Chester County. After he heard Santorum speak at the forum in Hershey, Hutton said he respects Santorum because he is "one of the very rare politicians that will take a stand he believes is right … and he’ll be very vocal about it."
But Hutton said he won’t be voting for Santorum in the general election on Nov. 7.
"Most of the stands he takes are ones I’m not comfortable with," Hutton said.
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Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press