Frustrated by what they say is Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.’s classic Rose Garden strategy in his campaign against Sen. Rick Santorum (R), Republicans are stepping up attempts to draw the Democrat out on controversial issues.
As soon as this week, Santorum’s campaign plans to release 10 questions “we’d like to see Bobby Casey answer on the big issues,” according to his consultant, John Brabender.
“We’re going to start making it very clear that here’s a guy who is not ready to run for the United States Senate if he’s not willing to talk about these issues that are on the top of mind of every Pennsylvania voter,” Brabender said.
Democrats, meanwhile, say the GOP’s desire to engage Casey at this early stage demonstrates how concerned they are about the incumbent’s own viability in a contest that currently overshadows the rest of the 2006 Senate landscape.
“This is just another sign that the Santorum campaign is floundering,” said Casey’s campaign manager, Jay Reiff. “From championing private Social Security accounts to being the only Member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo’s hospice, Rick Santorum has not gotten off to a good start.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Casey widening his lead over Santorum to 14 points last month as the campaign’s rhetoric has grown more and more heated.
Casey has not made any public campaign appearances since announcing his Senate candidacy in early February. He does attend events in his official capacity as treasurer but does not answer campaign-related questions.
Republicans accuse the 44-year-old state treasurer of hiding behind surrogates who have launched attacks on Santorum and charge that Democrats are trying to shield Casey from the public in an effort to sidestep talking about issues.
They say Casey has so far been unable to lay out substantive answers on matters such as how he would have voted on the Iraq war and where he stands on Social Security reform.
“He hasn’t had one public event, even as a state official, where he could be asked things” about the campaign, Brabender said. “Clearly they’re trying to hide Bobby Casey so that he doesn’t have to answer things.”
At the same time Brabender called Casey a willing accomplice to the third-party attacks that state and national Democrats have lobbed at Santorum.
During a fundraiser in Philadelphia in March, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called Santorum a “liar,” accusing him of saying one thing on funding for Amtrak but voting a different way. The state Democratic Party chairman has called on Santorum to return money he raised while in Florida during the Schiavo controversy, which he described as “tainted.”
Democrats contend that Casey’s Senate campaign is just getting off the ground and that the “Rose Garden” strategy charges are unfounded. Just last week Casey announced he had hired Reiff to manage the campaign.
They say that in a short period Casey has already addressed his stance on several major issues, including abortion, and that there will be ample time to discuss his other views. Both Santorum and Casey oppose abortion rights.
“The fact is we are a little over a month into an 18-month campaign and Bob Casey has already addressed a host of critical issues, including Iraq and Social Security,” Reiff said.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer suggested that Republicans were only trying to move the focus off the incumbent.
“They are motivated by a desperate need to get Santorum out of the news because he just keeps on getting himself into trouble every time he opens his mouth or does anything,” Singer said.
Republicans call the argument that Casey is focused on the duties of his current job bogus, pointing to the fact that he had his campaign Web site up and running even before the state treasurer’s site was completely done. Casey, who served eight years as auditor general, was elected to his current post in 2004, winning the most statewide votes in history.
“He’s an announced candidate,” Brabender said. “He’s accepting contributions. He’s already received one county endorsement. And, they’re attacking Rick Santorum relentlessly. That sounds like a campaign to me.”
The GOP is also stepping up efforts to enlist the media’s help in drawing Casey out. Last week, columns appeared in both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Daily News raising the GOP charges that Casey is hiding.
Because they believe Casey is not being held accountable, Republicans charge that he is able to play to two very different audiences.
“The belief is that he’s privately coming down to Washington and been saying something completely different trying to get liberal dollars contributed to his campaign,” Brabender said. “Those are all the types of questions we think people need to ask, and we’re pushing the press hard to start asking them.”
But Philadelphia Daily News columnist Gar Joseph wrote Friday that he got straight answers from Casey when he called to ask his position on five controversial issues.
“We got straight answers. No spin. No Kerry-style nuance,” Joseph wrote, referring to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign. “It must drive his consultants crazy.”
Not surprisingly, Casey’s responses were not enough to satisfy his opponents.
“You’ve never seen anybody so adept at taking the middle positions,” Brabender charged.
In that regard Republicans say Casey stands in stark contrast to the incumbent, who has at times been a willing lightning rod for controversy during his Senate tenure.
“One thing that no one will ever say about Rick Santorum is that he’s afraid to say where he stands on an issue,” Brabender said.
In the latest Quinnipiac survey, a quarter of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Santorum. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Republicans say, noting that in the same poll 40 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Casey, while roughly the same number said they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
“The truth of the matter is I think over time people will get the joke,” Brabender said. “They will understand that the Democrats are trying to hide Bobby Casey. That they’re afraid of what he’s going to say. They’re not going to let him speak, and I think they’re going to find that very offensive for a candidate for the United States Senate.”