Salena Zito

Pennsylvania’s Republican presidential primary last counted in 1980, when Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in a nasty battle.

Bush won the popular vote – but Reagan walked away with the delegates.

Four years earlier, Reagan was so desperate to win the Keystone State against incumbent Gerald Ford that the iconic conservative said he would pick Dick Schweiker, Pennsylvania’s very moderate U.S. senator, as his running mate.

It didn't work.

Rick Santorum heads home next month, hoping to win back the state that kicked him to the curb in 2006. He’ll arrive after winning two key Southern primaries and back-to-back state polls showing him 14 points ahead of Mitt Romney.

“The assumption should be, coming into Pennsylvania, he will be up in the polls even though he was drummed out of here pretty hard-core in 2006,” said Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown.

She said Santorum is benefiting from national attention and, contrarily, from most Pennsylvanians not yet paying close attention to the race.

Pennsylvania also is the home state of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Harrisburg native, and of Texas congressman Ron Paul, who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh.

A problem for all of the candidates except Romney is that none have seriously calculated into their campaign strategies that people’s votes don't win the nomination – delegates do.

It was the same daunting problem Hillary Clinton faced when she hit Pennsylvania four years ago today.

She won that primary over Barack Obama. Yet experts warned in advance that the Keystone race didn't matter: The state’s delegates would split, Obama would continue to gain in numbers, and Clinton had no clear path to “out-delegate” him.

Santorum faces that problem today, according to Josh Putnam, a delegate expert and political scientist at Davidson College. He said last Tuesday’s Southern primaries got Santorum no closer to Romney in delegates or in the ability to win the GOP nomination.

“Any night where Santorum doesn't cut into Romney's delegate lead -- and cut into it significantly – is a win for Romney,” he said.

Also last Tuesday, an impressive array of Pennsylvania Republicans, from congressmen to county chairmen, turned their backs on Santorum and endorsed Romney. They included Santorum’s close friend, Western Pennsylvania congressman Bill Schuster.

“The thing is, Romney is more conservative than Santorum,” said Dwight Weidman, a former Santorum supporter and Franklin County’s GOP chairman. “Of course, that runs contrary to what the news reports, but it is true.”

Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 1991 to 2007, began as a “progressive conservative” and ended as a social-conservative flamethrower. In between, he lost the voters who placed signs in their yards reading “Vote Gore-Santorum” in 2000.

A lot can happen in a month; Santorum may win Pennsylvania’s primary. Yet Jim Burn, the Democrats’ state chairman, predicts the race will be much closer.

“Once the national press and local press start reminding voters why they ran him out in 2006, you are going to see a tight race,” he said.

“The first thing we will do is remind voters of his insistence that taxpayers pay for his kids’ home-schooling when he no longer maintained a legal residence here.”

Burn refers to an old controversy over whether the then-U.S. senator’s family of seven lived in Penn Hills or in Leesburg, Va. It erupted when Penn Hills School District tried to recover more than $70,000 that, it contended, the state wrongly sent to a cyber charter school for his children’s education.

The Pennsylvania Education Department in 2006 agreed to pay the district $55,000 to settle the dispute.

Villanova’s Brown believes Santorum’s challenge with Pennsylvania Republicans breaks down this way: Tea Party conservatives won’t like his having had taxpayers foot the bill for his children’s schooling; conservatives will struggle with his support of Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the GOP’s 2004 Senate primary; women in populous collar counties of Philadelphia and suburban Pittsburgh will hate his constant talk about contraceptives.

“If Santorum cannot win his own state,” she explains, “he is not a national candidate. But if Romney wins here, he has proven he is a battleground winner” – just as he did with battleground-state victories in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.