Sunday, October 09, 2005

Post-Gazette: Bad news piles up on GOP, Santorum

Bad news piles up on GOP, Santorum: "Bad news piles up on GOP, Santorum
Should he distance himself from Bush or stay loyal?
Sunday, October 09, 2005

By Maeve Reston, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- At the end of a long stretch of bad news for Republicans, approval ratings for both President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., plunged to new lows among Pennsylvania voters this past week -- spelling out new warning signs for Mr. Santorum that winning re-election in 2006 may be a far steeper climb than it seemed even a few months ago.

It has been an unquestionably brutal summer for the president -- from waning support for the Iraq war, to the slow and almost certain death of his plan to restructure the Social Security system, to criticism over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, to concern about gas prices and the economy. If those trends continue, a looming question for candidates like Mr. Santorum is to what extent the public's dissatisfaction with the administration will spill over into the midterm elections in 2006.

Though much could change, a number of political analysts have begun to note similarities between the 2006 election and 1994, when Republicans capitalized on the failure of President Bill Clinton's health care plan, among other initiatives, as well as scandals within the Democratic Party, and swept into power with 54 new House seats.

Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that the second midterm election in a president's tenure tends to produce the steepest losses, though Mr. Clinton defied that pattern in 1998.

"Midterm elections tend to be referendums on the current administration and they are more easily made referendums when the president's party is in control of Congress," Mr. Mann said. "It's shaping up to be an unfortunate time for [Mr. Santorum] to run for re-election; it would have been easier in 2004 or 2002."

Some candidates have addressed second midterm vulnerability by distancing themselves ideologically from the president, but Mr. Santorum faces a special challenge: He is in a position of power in the Republican Party and his agenda has been closely aligned with that of the president on most major issues. In fact, in 2004, Mr. Santorum was one of a handful of senators who voted with the president 100 percent of the time.

As chairman of the Senate's Republican Conference, Mr. Santorum was a firm defender of the president's decision to invade Iraq, he pressed even harder than the administration on issues such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage last session, and earlier this year he was the most visible Senate advocate for the president's Social Security push.

"When you consider where [Mr. Santorum] was even a few months ago when Bush was in stronger shape, and when Republicans were much more united, you've got to say that he is probably in a worse position now than almost any other incumbent running for re-election," said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

And though it is more than a year until the election, campaign officials for Mr. Santorum's challenger, state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., clearly plan to play up the parallels in the agendas of Mr. Bush and Mr. Santorum.

"Rick Santorum has been in lockstep with the president, and as a result, out of step with Pennsylvania," Mr. Casey's campaign manager Jay Reiff said in an interview.

But in recent weeks, Mr. Santorum has begun to show more willingness to distance himself -- at least tactically -- from Mr. Bush.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette several weeks ago, Mr. Santorum said for the first time that the White House had stumbled badly in its handling of the Social Security issue, and compared Mr. Bush's decision to demand a restructuring of the Social Security system immediately after the contentious 2004 election as "taking a 3-iron to a beehive."

Two weeks ago, Mr. Santorum startled some conservatives and tax lobbyists when he said the costs of Hurricane Katrina had made it necessary for Republicans to reconsider whether they should extend some of the president's tax cuts -- such as the lower rate on capital gains and dividends passed in 2003.

"There's a chance we may not extend some of those provisions this year," Santorum told radio host Don Imus, adding that Congress might not do "as much in the way of tax relief as we had originally scheduled or target some of that tax relief to the affected areas."

After the President's speech on terrorism and the Iraq war at the National Endowment for Democracy on Thursday, Santorum told reporters the speech was "one he should've made a few years ago" and added that he had "been saying for a long time the president needs to better define this war."

His spokesman said the senator has expressed those sentiments in private meetings with constituents, as well as at recent town hall meetings, when he has tried to address public frustration with the war and its costs.

When 46 Republican senators defied the threat of a presidential veto last week by voting for a measure sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would standardize the treatment of prisoners in the wake of torture scandals at the Abu Ghraib prison, Mr. Santorum was among them.

And most notably, he was virtually silent on the president's nomination early last week of Harriet E. Miers to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Conservatives' concern about the high court has been such a big issue in recent elections that the selection of Ms. Miers could have major consequences for candidates like Mr. Santorum if conservatives are still angry enough next year to stay home.

Mr. Santorum has little patience for questions about poll numbers or what his strategy is nearly a year before the election. And when asked about the correlation between the president's job ratings and his own, he said: "I think voters are going to look at my performance, at my opponent's competency and record ... The president's job performance will have little to no effect on the outcome of my race."

But it is notable that some of the senator's most high-profile crusades -- from an $85 billion tax break for charitable giving, to the constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, to Social Security reform -- were all big-ticket items that the White House embraced but did not carry through to completion. That means they are unlikely to be on Mr. Santorum's list of accomplishments during the race next year.

In the case of Social Security, some have suggested that could be a blessing. But in the case of charitable giving, Mr. Santorum has continued to push for those tax breaks long after Mr. Bush dropped his 2001 goal of passing an $85 billion tax break for Americans who make charitable contributions. He recently reintroduced the Charitable Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act, which was passed by both houses last year, but then derailed from final passage by a power struggle between Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Santorum has been more successful working around the White House on goals such as increasing America's multi-lateral funding for AIDS, which is separate from the president's $15 billion bi-lateral commitment to stopping AIDS over five years.

Mr. Santorum has teamed up with Democrats to boost the amount of money the United States has pledged to the Global Fund -- where America's funding for the disease, as well as for malaria and tuberculosis -- is matched by other nations.

This year, for example, when the president set aside $200 million as America's contribution to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in his budget and the congressional budget committees upped that amount $400 million, Mr. Santorum joined forces with Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant minority leader, to add another $100 million to the contribution. The allotment is now under discussion by House and Senate negotiators.

If Mr. Santorum does distance himself from White House policies over the next year -- one area where he is certain to retain their help is in fund raising. Just two weeks from now, Vice President Dick Cheney will hold another fundraiser for Mr. Santorum in Shavertown, Pa..

"It's a delicate balancing act," said Carroll J. Doherty, associate director of Pew Research Center for People and the Press. "This president, he's had a rough stretch, but he still commands loyalty from around 80 percent of Republicans, which is not inconsiderable. ... He has enormous assets to bring to the table.""

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