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Wofford Foe Is Forced on the Defensive : Pennsylvania: GOP's Santorum, off to a strong start, spends waning days of Senate race explaining his irreverent rhetoric. Election is seen as tossup.

November 04, 1994|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — For two months Republican challenger Rick Santorum has been gaining ground on Democratic incumbent Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania's critical U.S. Senate race by thumbing his nose at the traditional liberalism he claims Wofford represents.

But as the campaign moves into its closing days, with control of the Senate potentially at stake, Santorum has found himself on the defensive, forced to deal with backfires from his own irreverent rhetoric.

Most serious, the two-term GOP congressman from Pittsburgh tripped over the third rail of American politics--Social Security--by suggesting that the retirement age be moved back to 70. Meanwhile other remarks made by Santorum on the campaign trail offended Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Sen. John Heinz, the Republican whose former seat is the prize in this campaign. She publicly denounced the challenger, calling him "the antithesis" of her husband.

"This is a good wake-up call for Pennsylvanians," crowed Pat Ewing, Wofford's campaign manager about these developments. "We always knew that once Pennsylvanians saw the true Rick Santorum, they would run for the hills."

But Mike Mihalke, Santorum's press secretary, called Wofford's efforts to capitalize on the Social Security issue a "distortion" and dismissed the significance of Mrs. Heinz's comments. "I think this election is not going to be determined by how one individual person makes up her mind but about the fact that people are tired of big government and '60s liberalism," Mihalke said.

This bitterly fought contest is one of a handful being waged around the country that will help decide which party rules the Senate for the next two years. The Democrats who now have a 56-44 majority, are in danger of losing half a dozen seats where their incumbents have retired. They can ill afford a defeat here for Wofford, whose victory in a 1991 special election foreshadowed Democratic successes in 1992.

Although a new Philadelphia Daily News/KYW-3 Keystone Poll released Thursday showed Santorum ahead by 10 percentage points, independent analysts said that the Wofford-Santorum competition is too close to call. But some think that Santorum's loose tongue has given Wofford his best chance yet to focus his campaign and rally his supporters.

"Santorum started off with a crisp message that Wofford was a tax-and-spend liberal who wanted to take America back to the '60s," noted Terry Madonna, Millersville University pollster, whose survey last month showed Santorum, who had been 10 to 15 points behind, dead even with Wofford.

In particular, Santorum has focused on Wofford's support of national health insurance reform as demonstrating his commitment to big government and big spending. Meanwhile the 36-year-old challenger has presented himself as a moderate.

Wofford tried to depict Santorum as a right-wing extremist. "But he (Wofford) lacked a clearly defined message," Madonna said.

Santorum then set himself up for trouble two weeks ago in a talk at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Answering a question from a student about the long-term financial future of the Social Security system, Santorum said, according to a transcript provided by the Wofford campaign: "The biggest thing we have to do is to move back the retirement age." He called the current retirement age of 65 "ridiculous," and suggested changing it to 70. He explained that he would begin the change with people who are 62 or 63 and add the years on at the rate of one month a year.

But the Wofford campaign omitted that detail from a television commercial it began running last week, which provides a couple of filmed sound bites from Santorum's remarks and warns: "Rick Santorum says it's time to change the rules. . . . He wants to delay Social Security until you're 70."

In response, Santorum's campaign said that the candidate's proposal would not affect current or near-term beneficiaries, a point that he might have emphasized more in his remarks if he had been more cautious. The statement also branded the Wofford commercial "a recklessly false ad."

But fair or not, the issue appears to be having an impact. Campaigning in Wilkes-Barre this week, Santorum had to field numerous questions on a radio talk show about his remarks. "I have never done anything to jeopardize the Social Security trust fund," Santorum replied, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Santorum's problems have been compounded by Mrs. Heinz's statement. A patron of the arts, an advocate of the environment and a prominent figure in Pennsylvania public life, she had considered running against Wofford herself.

A family spokesman said that Mrs. Heinz, a member of the board supervising the new National Service Corps, was irked by a disparaging remark Santorum made about national service during a debate with Wofford, an enthusiastic proponent of the idea.

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