Rick Santorum is still in trouble.

Rick Santorum is still in trouble.

Rick Santorum is still in trouble.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 3 2006 7:20 PM

Santorum Can't Draw

A tie in the first debate doesn't help the endangered senator.

Rick Santorum was the most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate going into his debate Sunday with Democrat Bob Casey. He still is. The exchange on Meet the Press was largely a wash, and that's not good for the Republican who is behind in the polls by as much as 18 points.

It's hard to imagine anything kinetic happening in a space also occupied by State Treasurer Bob Casey. If Santorum was occasionally excitable and edgy, Casey seemed like a negotiator coaxing someone in from the ledge. Both men tried to fix their image problems. The rap against Casey is that he's not a fighter, so he tried to look tough and spirited, turning theatrically to pose direct questions to his opponent. Santorum, who has the opposite problem, at times reacted passively. While Casey lectured, the incumbent stared off into the middle distance like a schoolboy enduring a scolding.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

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It's not that Santorum isn't trying to make things exciting. The foreign policy views he articulated are very exciting. With two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he's itching for a confrontation with Iran. It's the central front in the war on terror, he argues, responsible for attacks against Israel and the sectarian violence in Iraq. He's more hawkish than the Bush administration, which he accused of being too soft on the regime. When moderator Tim Russert asked questions about Iraq, Santorum talked about its neighbor. "I don't know if it's a question of more troops or less troops," he said about the violence in Iraq. "I think the focus should not be Iraq; it should be Iran."

It was hard to tell whether Santorum was merely being excitable about Iran or using it to avoid talking about Iraq. He certainly has gotten ahead of himself on other issues in the past. It was Santorum who introduced the idea of man-and-dog love into a discussion about same-sex marriages. He called a news conference to declare that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, only to have Pentagon officials slap down the claim. Talking about Iran and Islamic fascism helps him shift the debate. He can deflect Casey's criticisms about Iraq by saying his opponent doesn't understand the true nature of the global threat. "You believe we're going to win this battle [against terrorism] on the battle fields of Afghanistan and Iraq," he said to Casey. "I don't. I think we'll win or lose this war right here in America." Santorum's point seemed to be that the war against terrorism will be lost if Americans lose their will.

If Santorum didn't make his case very well, Casey offered only generalities when he talked about Iraq. He wants accountability for past mistakes and the Iraqi government to take on more responsibility for security. He doesn't want an immediate withdrawal of troops, but he wants benchmarks to measure progress, though he didn't suggest what kind. When Russert asked him whether he would have supported the war given what he knows now, I thought Russert was going to have to chase Casey around the desk to get a simple 'no.' He didn't talk about his view, but rather, what "a lot of Americans" believe. Finally, on Russert's fourth try, Casey said no, he would not have voted for the war knowing what he knows now.

The candidates also sparred over the budget, and taxes, and the morning-after pill (Casey is for it; Santorum isn't). Casey has promised he'll push to balance the federal budget in Washington but offered no specific spending cuts. He called for some generic corporate-welfare reforms and some tax cut rollbacks that won't get the job done. On the topic of Social Security reform both men were hopeless. Santorum offered personal accounts as if they would require no benefit reductions and Casey downplayed the nature of the entitlement problem.

The debate ended on local issues. Santorum has been under fire for living mostly in Washington rather than his home state. He defended his record working for Pennsylvania, citing approving remarks by the state's Democratic governor and said he lives in Washington to be with his wife and children. It was his best moment of the day. Casey defended his role in the volatile pay raise that in May led voters to toss 17 incumbents out of office. Santorum was aggressive, charging that as state treasurer, Casey could have fought the raise and didn't. Casey tried to smile past the issue, saying he was just "following the law." He repeated that mantra a few times too many, making it sound less like a statement of principle and more like Al Gore's "no controlling legal authority" dodge.

The pay-raise issue still has potency in the state, but I imagine that Pennsylvania voters who care about it have already made up their minds about whether they're going to penalize Casey. It's also a tough trick for the incumbent Santorum to use anti-incumbent fever against his opponent. But when you're behind, you'll try anything to shake up the race.