By JAMES O’TOOLE
Rick Santorum was strolling past a display of highly brightly polished tractors at the Butler (Pa.) Farm Show this summer when he came across an old friend.
Rep. Phil English, R-Erie, and the two-term senator exchanged political intelligence, handicapping his chances in the November election — just as they had 16 years earlier when English bunked in his college buddy’s attic, helping manage Santorum’s campaign for Congress.
They were insurgents then, Republicans taking on their party’s, political establishments in a race in which few outside observers thought Santorum had a chance. Now, they are the establishment, with all the political power, and vulnerability, conferred by the change in status.
This establishment will meet what is expected to be its sternest test in Pennsylvania this November as Santorum faces Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey.
Santorum’s rise, and that of his GOP allies, are a part of a broad national story of the transformation of American politics — the ascendance of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Over the years, Santorum, 48, has evolved from a brash outsider who challenged the mores of Congress to an insider at the pinnacle of power. Phil English is one of a band of allies who rose in parallel.
At the same time, Melissa Hart, another veteran of the state Young Republicans, was taking on a Democratic state senator in a district that was largely within the congressional district targeted by Santorum.
In startling, overlapping upsets, both would win. English would go on to become Hart’s chief of staff in the state Senate. Then, in 1994, he won his seat in Congress, taking the place of Tom Ridge, who was elected governor.
Six years later, in 2000, Hart would join her former aide in Washington, after upsetting a favored opponent in an adjoining district. The GOP march on the Western Pennsylvania congressional delegation continued two years later as then-state Sen. Tim Murphy, of Upper St. Clair, won an yet another seat in Congress, in a newly reconstituted 18th District.
The other side of that coin involves the other side of the state. There, Santorum confronts a band of populous counties surrounding Philadelphia where the political demographics are nearly the opposite of those in his home region. Once Republican strongholds and still Republican by registration, those counties have been increasingly hospitable to Democrats.
Santorum managed to win the suburban swath surrounding Philadelphia in his last race, in 2000, even as President Bush was losing there to Al Gore. But public polling so far suggests that he will be severely challenged to do so again. Seeking to soften his image with Republican women, Santorum recently campaigned in suburban Philadelphia with prominent GOP women, including Sen. Elizabeth Dole and former U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari of New York.
They argued against what Santorum regards as an unfair caricature — that he is an unreasonable, right-wing ideologue.
But more specifically they were there to address what Molinari called "the elephant in the room" — Santorum’s praised and reviled book, "It Takes a Family."
In it, Santorum reinforced his ties to his conservative base but raised hurdles to his chance of winning over more moderate voters with passages that were criticized — unfairly in his view — as being dismissive of the values of working women and families.
In the book, Santorum argues that, "in far too many families with young children, both parents are working when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might confess that both of them don’t really need to work, or at least may not need to work as much as they do."
Later, he states, "Many women have told me, and surveys have shown, that they find it easier, more ‘professionally’ gratifying, and certainly, more socially affirming, to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of this children.
"Respect for stay-at-home mothers, has been poisoned by a toxic combination of the village elders’ war on the traditional family and radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect."
Santorum has repeatedly complained that his Democratic critics have taken passages from the book out of context.
And defenders, such as Molinari, endorse the critique of family and work that has stirred such criticism.
"You know, it’s not just a message to women," she said, "It’s a message to family, I consider myself a feminist and I welcome that message.
"Most people who actually read the book don’t say, ‘Rick Santorum is a radical, that this is full of crazy ideas.’ "
Santorum’s opponent does. One of Casey’s favorite campaign mantras is to recite selected points from "It Takes a family," followed by the refrain: "Nobody believes that."
Among its other, less widely noted passages, the book seeks to present a more fleshed-out rationale for the oft-repeated slogan, "compassionate conservatism." At other points in its text, Santorum confronts not just issues such as his interpretations of liberalism and "radical feminism," but his own party. He argues that too many Republican lawmakers have not been sufficiently concerned, for example, with urban poverty.
Among Santorum’s chief priorities when he first came to the House was the chamber itself, as he and the group of firebrands known as the Gang of Seven, pressed for reforms in the cozy practices of the House bank and post office. Now, he finds himself the target of Democratic charges over the ties between lawmakers and lobbyists.
His book recounts his involvement in what is perhaps his most noteworthy legislative achievement: the welfare reform law signed a decade ago by President Clinton. He has also, at some political peril, argued for the need to transform Social Security with personal accounts for younger workers.
A champion of conservative social policy in general, Santorum also has been a leader in efforts to ban the procedure known as partial birth abortion. For most of his career in Washington, Santorum focused on domestic issues _ abortion policy, House reform, welfare reform and Social Security, but, more recently, and particularly in the last year, he has been more vocal on foreign policy.
President Bush has recently substituted "war on Islamic fascism," for "war on terror." That’s a term Santorum has been using for more than a year as he has become increasingly outspoken on the need to confront Iran and other sources of what he see as threats to the United States.
Santorum chaired President Bush’s 2004 campaign in Pennsylvania. The army of volunteers it attracted are a potent grass roots force. They remain a significant potential asset for Santorum in this election.
Should Santorum win his re-election battle, his come-from-behind victory in a closely watched race will burnish his credentials to move up in the Senate leadership and would be sure to make him a contender for a spot on his party’s national ticket in 2008 or beyond. But even a loss, coupled with the possibility of other GOP carnage in the state, could lead 2006 to be remembered as the high-water mark of a powerful tide in the state’s political history.
(James O’Toole can be reached at jotoole(at)post-gazette.com)