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Pennsylvania voters say Santorum is too extreme, can't beat Obama

February 27, 2012|By Colby Itkowitz | The Morning Call
  • Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum makes a campaign stop at the St. Mary's Cultural & Banquet Center in Livonia, Mich.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum makes a campaign stop at the St.… (Joe Raedle/Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Rick Santorum may be a mystery, a bit of an anomaly, to most American voters, but Pennsylvanians have known him a long time. And six years ago they overwhelmingly chose to sever ties.

Now Santorum has re-emerged as a serious contender in the Republican presidential primary, and Pennsylvania voters have mixed feelings about his return. At best, most find him honest about his beliefs. At worst, half say those beliefs are too extreme for the presidency.

Just 13% feel strongly that Santorum could beat  President Obama in the general election, compared with 45% who feel strongly that he cannot, according to a new Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll of Pennsylvania voters.

The poll surveyed 625 registered Pennsylvania voters from Feb. 15 to Feb. 21 and has a 4-point margin of error.

One respondent, Mary Ellen Brimmer, 73, of New Holland, Lancaster County, said she's hoping Santorum does not win the nomination. Not because she has any vivid memories of his time as senator or because she doesn't share his views, but because he couldn't win the grand prize.

"I know Obama will just run away with him and I hope Obama will be finished," Brimmer, a Republican, said. "They'll clean up the floor with him. I just don't think he's capable."

In Pennsylvania, Santorum has a better chance against Obama than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but both Republicans trail the president in the poll. Obama leads Santorum 49% to 41%, and tops Romney 48% to 37%.

And with the Republican primary race heading to Pennsylvania on April 24, the state's GOP voters have a dramatically more favorable view of Santorum than they do of Romney. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters have a positive opinion of Santorum, 23% do not and 12% have no opinion. Just 40% of Republicans have a favorable view of him, as many view him as unfavorable and 21% have no opinion.

Ken Wells, 80, of Douglassville, Berks County, said he always thought well of Santorum.

"I think I liked the same thing I like now: that he seemed real. He's exactly like the rest of us who cling to our guns and religion," Wells said, mimicking something Obama said in April 2008 about people in Pennsylvania.

"I'd be happy with [Newt] Gingrichand I'd be satisfied with Romney, but I'd rather see Santorum," Wells, a Republican, said.

Of note, said Chris Borick, the Muhlenberg pollster, is that Santorum's favorability in the state hasn't improved among Pennsylvania voters since his 2006 Senate loss to Democrat Bob Casey. Half viewed him unfavorably then, and now.

"It tells us that while his image may be more malleable outside the commonwealth during this campaign, within the state where he is known best, his numbers really aren't that different than they were five and a half years ago," Borick said.

Watching Santorum gain momentum nationally has T.J. Rooney, who was state Democratic Party chairman in 2006, recalling the former senator's polarizing effect on voters.

"I remember he always evoked such strong feelings and I couldn't remember for the life of me why," Rooney said. "The thing that came back to me most vividly, the senator is like the kid who puts his thumbs in his ears and calls you names and then runs into his house."

Around one-third said their views of Santorum have changed since he represented the state on Capitol Hill, while 58% said their views haven't.

Margaret Hill, a poll respondent who coincidentally worked with Santorum in Pittsburgh and knows his family, said she voted for him in the 2006 Senate election but is unlikely to now. A self-described moderate Democrat, Hill, 57, said she believes Santorum has moved further to the right since he was a senator.

"I was able to vote for him," she said. "He didn't bother me like he bothers me now."

When Pennsylvanians were asked to describe Santorum in one word, the responses were equally negative, positive and neutral. They praised him with terms like "honest" and "decent" and "real." The more hostile epithets included "arrogant," "crazy" and "extreme." One woman called him "the devil."

Ellen Cassidy, 24, from Downington, Chester County, said she hates him.

She can't comprehend how he's gone so far in the presidential process. An independent, Cassidy said she'll vote for Obama, but would have considered Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman if he had stayed in the race.

"I just want someone who is reasonable and not going to be held back by partisan politics," she said.

Others' reactions were less visceral.

Larry Puhalla, 70, of Bethel Park, Allegheny County, said he never voted for Santorum, but described his feeling for him as "neutral."

Puhalla said he's waiting to see if another Republican makes a last-minute attempt at running. He's disappointed in Obama's job performance, he said, but he'll vote for the president again over the current Republican crop.

citkowitz@mcall.com

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