By Edith Honan
CAMP HILL, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Six years ago, U.S. Senator Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania defeated Rick Santorum in a landslide in part by linking him to the unpopular policies of then-President George Bush.
Turnabout is fair play, it would seem. This year, as Casey, a Democrat, faces his first re-election fight, the five Republican candidates vying to run against him in November hope to connect Casey to President Barack Obama's positions on health care, energy and spending.
The April 24 Republican primary falls on the same day as the presidential primary, which will see Santorum - now a presidential candidate - take on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and U.S. Representative Ron Paul.
"In the past six years, I think the people of Pennsylvania, and across America, have decided we're headed in the wrong direction," said Tom Smith, one of the Republican candidates.
He said that Casey had voted with Obama "98 percent of the time," including votes in favor of a health care overhaul, stimulus spending and raising the debt ceiling.
Other candidates have made a similar case. Steve Welch, an entrepreneur who has been endorsed by the state Republican party, is running a playful ad on his campaign website arguing that Casey, who is white, and Obama, who is black, were "somehow separated at birth."
"What we are doing is we are destroying freedom in this country ... through a massive expansion of government that, in so many ways, is sending us down the road to bankruptcy," Welch told a gathering of conservative Pennsylvanians this weekend in Camp Hill, a suburb of the state capital of Harrisburg.
In an interview following the event, Welch said he hoped to draw a "stark contrast" between what he described as his values of limited government and personal responsibility, and the over-spending that he said characterized the "Obama-Casey agenda."
Mark Nicastre, a spokesman with the state Democratic party, called the Republican campaign a "massive sprint to the right," adding that Casey has "a strong record of working to create jobs."
"Senator Casey has a long record of working across the aisle on jobs, the economy and other issues important to Pennsylvanians," said Nicastre.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released earlier this month found Casey had a 12-point margin over an unnamed Republican challenger, and nearly half of registered voters approve of his job performance. In 2006, Casey won the seat by an 18-percentage-point margin over Santorum.
Pennsylvania voters have long put the "swing" in swing-state. In 2006, voters here re-elected a Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, by nearly 20 percentage points. Four years later, in 2010, those same voters elected Republican Governor Tom Corbett by a nearly 10 percentage-point margin.
Poll data suggests the plan of the Republican candidates to run against Obama is riskier than Casey's strategy six years ago. In June 2006, only one-third of Pennsylvania voters approved of Bush's job performance, according to a Quinnipiac poll. By contrast, as of this month, 47 percent of Pennsylvanians approve of Obama's performance as president, while 49 percent disapprove, Quinnipiac found.
CHALLENGERS FACE UPHILL BATTLE
Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said that the Republican candidates faced an uphill battle against Casey, who has generally performed well among moderate and independent voters.
"If you win the moderate vote in Pennsylvania, you're going to win. It's as simple as that," said Madonna. "I think it's going to be very hard to beat him."
While the likelihood of Republican victory would increase if the economy soured, the Republican candidates - who also include Sam Rohrer, Marc Scaringi and David Christian - all face the additional problem of poor name recognition, Madonna said.
Casey has never had to work at name recognition: the senator has the same name as his father, a popular former governor.
Smith, a self-made millionaire who has pumped $5 million of his own fortune into his campaign, said he hoped his personal story of having gone from working in a coal mine to owning a coal company would appeal to voters.
"I understand that Senator Bob Casey has a famous name, a political name here in Pennsylvania. I've been blessed with a simple name, Bob Smith, and we are getting the TV ads out there to introduce ourselves," he said.
Given that each of the Republican candidates are running on a platform of conservative values, the central irony in the race has been that two of the leading candidates, Welch and Smith, were once Democrats.
Welch, who left the party briefly, has admitted to voting for Obama in 2008 - something he now calls a "mistake."
Smith, who said he registered as a Democrat to honor his late father, a Democrat, is quick to add that he has donated generously to conservative candidates and causes.
(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Osterman)