Desire For Change Elected Wofford, Then Doomed Him

Posted: November 10, 1994

In an impatient age, pity the poor candidate who doesn't deliver on a promise of change.

When U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford won election in 1991, voters cast their lot with a genial, cerebral reformer who promised to fix government's response to middle-class problems like health care.

Three years later, with even more exasperation at the way government operates, voters picked a blunter and bolder instrument.

Republican Rick Santorum - conservative, street fighter, political bomb- thrower - is unlike any senator that Pennsylvania has sent to Washington in modern history, a man in a hurry who knows what he wants and is more than willing to do the dirty work to get things off the dime.

How he wooed and won the state is a tale of enormous energy, relentless drive and singular vision, a study in how to tap voter mood and give it expression, and a model of how to organize, organize, organize from the grass roots to the airwaves.

Testimony to that came from analysts across the political spectrum yesterday, but most notably from the Wofford camp.

"I have to say hats off to Santorum and his campaign," said consultant Paul Begala, partner with James Carville in the Wofford braintrust. "It was very sharp, focused and aggressive . . . especially the focus they had on the role of government in people's lives.

He felt like Custer at Little Big Horn, Begala said - "Where did all those Indians come from?"

They came from Santorum's commitment to keeping a grass-roots organization, even in a statewide race that would be waged in huge part on television.

The local volunteers, Santorum said yesterday in a telephone interview, were what checked the damage of his intemperate remarks about the Social Security system that provided Wofford his greatest weapon of the race.

After videotaping Santorum advocating a raise in the retirement age, the Wofford campaign saturated television with Santorum's own aggressive image.

Internal Republican polls showed Santorum's support plunging 12 to 14 points in a matter of days, his candidacy losing the lead he had won with a year's work.

It was a "shot that would have knocked out a lot of candidates," Santorum said. "But even before we went up on TV in response, we saw it coming back. I have to believe it was our grass-roots organization, talking to one person at a time.

"You just can't do without that base," Santorum said. "It just overcomes a lot of adversity. We faxed every one of our volunteers to get out there and get on the phone. Obviously, our response is more effective if it comes from neighbors and people you know."

Simultaneously, the organization put out a direct-mail appeal to elderly voters alarmed at the Wofford ads. The two tacks proved crucial, because the campaign's TV response was slower than some Santorum advisers wanted.

Santorum campaign manager Pat Meehan, one of several Arlen Specter advisers

helping Santorum, said the TV goal was "not to react immediately but to peak just before the election." And the response ad spotlighting the Wofford staff's videotape team fed into skepticism that the piece was manipulative and playing to elders' fears.

"I get tired of reading stories about this sincere Harris Wofford, when the most visible part of him, his TV campaign, is as cynical and hypocritical as any ever run," said David Buffington, editor of the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Report. "He ran a minimum of positive advertising talking about what he believes. And by consensus of ad watches, his Social Security piece was distorted and unfair."

Santorum's victory, analysts agreed, was aided greatly by the Wofford campaign's failure until too late to focus its message, to define the Democrat against the Republican - a move that enabled the Republicans "to seize the moment and project Rick and inoculate him from the attacks that would come later."

Begala conceded that that had been a mistake.

"Judgments won't be as clear and precise the morning after than after a few more sleepless nights," said Begala, mastermind with Carville of the '91 Wofford race and President Clinton's 1992 election. "If I had it to do over again, I would have wanted to draw the contrast more clearly. As early as possible I would have contrasted the public record of each candidate."

Santorum never strayed far from his message of less government, fewer taxes, and greater individual freedoms. And a series of positive "kitchen table" ads he ran in October not only set his message apart philosophically, but separated it from the wave of negativity on the air from Wofford and virtually every other candidate.

"We were able to define Rick in a way that gave people a personal sense of him, independent of what his opponent was saying," Meehan said.

At the same time, Santorum himself was shoring up the personal ties he had been cultivating in all corners of the state, solidifying Republican strongholds, making sure his home turf around Pittsburgh did not deliver the Democratic vote it usually produced.

It paid off. Wofford only carried Pittsburgh and the Southwest by 2 percentage points, 49-47. Santorum, meanwhile, cleaned up, 55-42 percent, in the Erie media market; carried the Philadelphia suburbs, 55-45; squeaked by, 50-49, in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Poconos; and clocked the incumbent, 61-35, in the center of the state.

Though Wofford won Philadelphia by 74-24 percent, a 49 percent voter turnout - lowest in the state - held down the Democrat enough for Santorum to pass him elsewhere.

Santorum's energy also cannot be overstated in his statewide strategy.

Unlike Wofford, who frequently did just one or two controlled events a day, Santorum was doing four, five, six events, day after day after day.

"Rick just absolutely never stops," said one prominent GOP fund-raiser. ''He calls, he asks advice, and he takes advice. His staff called looking for contributor lists. We gave him one, and two days later they called and said, 'We've done that list. Do you have another?'

"And who made the calls?" the Republican said. "Rick. He worked the phones himself."

The effort gave the Republicans equal money with Wofford's formidable funding machine.

Even with all of that, Wofford might have prevailed.

But unlike 1991, when Wofford caught the country's mood, Santorum was the one "whose sails were being carried by the wind moving through the country," as Democratic media consultant Edward Mitchell put it before the election.

Tony May, former executive director for the state Democrats and adviser to Gov. Casey, also worried about that in the waning days of the race.

"In electing Harris Wofford and Bill Clinton, voters were in an anti- incumbent mode," May said. "Then they turned around and elected Christie Whitman in New Jersey and others. There is no reason to assume voters will be

satisfied turning out two or three incumbents and think they are finished with their task."

It proved a prescient analysis.

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