WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has the dubious distinction of being the GOP's most vulnerable incumbent, but all that could change once Democratic voters know more about his pro-life opponent.
Virtually every poll shows Santorum running 10 to 15 points behind State Treasurer Robert Casey Jr., who is running a stealth, under-the-radar centrist campaign that is known more, in some circles, for his anti-abortion and gun-rights views than for anything else.
So far, Santorum has failed in his attempts to smoke Casey out on the issues, frustrating the two-term conservative senator, whose weak re-elect numbers have been frozen for months. Like Tom Dewey in the legendary 1948 presidential election, Casey is betting that the path to victory is to say as little as possible about what he thinks. In his case, though, it seems to be working for him.
But the big question is, how Casey's pro-life views, once fully known by the electorate, will play with the state's politically potent pro-choice voters, and whether an independent abortion-rights candidate can draw enough Democratic votes away from Casey to help Santorum eke out a victory in a divided three-way race.
Pro-choice leaders like former NARAL president Kate Michelman has whipped up opposition to Casey in her home state and for a while looked as if she would challenge him as an independent. She has indicated she will not run, but one of Casey's pro-choice opponents could.
"If there were a third-party candidate on the ballot who is pro-choice, that candidate could draw heavily from Casey backers among liberal Democrats, enough to make it a close race," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, whose surveys show that Casey is very vulnerable on the issue among his party's base.
Although both Santorum and Casey are avowedly pro-life, the big difference is that the senator's position is strongly supported by the GOP's base, while Casey's party is overwhelmingly pro-choice in a state that has some of the most conservative abortion laws in the nation.
Strange as it may seem, most Democrats still don't know much about Casey's pro-life views -- including his opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research -- but when they do, his support drops. A Quinnipiac poll found that after voters were told he was pro-life, many Democrats reacted negatively to his candidacy, a fact that could spell trouble for him when the race heats up later this year.
"A significant number of Casey supporters still do not know that Casey is opposed to abortion. There are a significant number of pro-choice voters whose entire opinion swings on that one issue, and, unlike other single-issue voters, they will use their vote on just that one issue, even if it hurts the candidate they are otherwise philosophically attuned with," Richards told me.
There are other reasons why pro-choice activists are angry with Casey, which could further complicate his campaign. First, both Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, pressured pro-choice candidate Barbara Hafer into dropping out of the race to clear the way for Casey's expected nomination in the May 16 party primary.
Then Casey said he would have voted to confirm Justice Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, a move that further alienated his party's pro-choice base, which fiercely opposed the pro-life jurist.
"For me and for many people across the country who care about women's rights, that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Michelman said.
All of this has created deep discord in Casey's party -- discord that is beginning to bubble to the surface.
The most recent grassroots manifestation of this came late last month at the Lancaster County Democratic Convention, which did not endorse any candidate to oppose Santorum.
When a Democratic committee member expressed reservations about Bob Casey's socially conservative positions, county party chairman Bruce Beardsley urged party members to look beyond Casey's pro-life stance.
"Would you rather have someone who you disagree with about two things [abortion and gun control] but agree with about everything else, or one whom you disagree with on everything?" Beardsley said.
The committee member replied, "Those two issues are very important to me."
For now, elections analyst Stu Rothenberg, who tracks House and Senate races, has Santorum's seat in the "lean Democratic takeover" column. But he acknowledges that the senator, with nearly $8 million in the bank, "is a good campaigner" who should not be underestimated.
Still, Quinnipiac's Richards thinks Casey's double-digit lead isn't all it's cracked up to be. "To have that kind of gap means the public isn't informed on a lot of things. I would imagine the gap would narrow after the first debate, regardless of the abortion issue."