Santorum cuts to epicenter of meaty debate Santorum visits local epicenter on immigration

Posted: June 21, 2006

Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) had his cheesesteak wit' political symbolism in a visit to Geno's Steaks late Monday, when he posed for photos behind the grill with a spatula in hand.

The unscheduled drop-by at the epicenter of an international media storm over owner Joey Vento's English-only sign came as Santorum is hitting illegal immigration hard on the campaign trail.

Nationally, the issue has galvanized the conservative base that Santorum will need to catch his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., who for months has led in state polls. Illegal immigration has taken center stage in the Senate race in recent weeks.

Santorum's recent radio ads claimed Casey had "joined with Ted Kennedy and other liberals in supporting a bill that grants amnesty to millions who've entered our country illegally." Casey responded with an ad - set to music of the "Mexican Hat Dance" - that contrasts Santorum's current tough talk on illegal immigrants with earlier, softer stands.

Santorum's campaign denied that the Geno's visit was calculated. A campaign spokeswoman and South Philadelphia Republicans said that local supporters tipped off the Philadelphia Daily News, which took a picture of the senator and quoted him giving a quasi-endorsement of Vento's sign.

"He's gone to Geno's once a month for years, and the bottom line is he just wanted a cheesesteak," said Santorum spokeswoman Virginia Davis.

Santorum was in Philadelphia to open a southeast regional campaign office Monday when he made the visit a little before 10 p.m. He was quoted as saying that it "makes all the sense in the world" for Vento to post a sign that says: "This is America. When ordering, please 'Speak English.' " After all, Santorum said, the menu is simple.

"We think Joe Vento has the right to run his business as he pleases, but we're guessing he doesn't know about Rick Santorum's hypocritical record on illegal immigration," said Saul Shorr, a Casey consultant.

He cited an April op-ed article in which Santorum spoke of the need for reform to "bring those illegal workers in from the edge of society." The Casey campaign also points to what was, until corrected recently, contradictory language on Santorum's Web site on the issue: In Spanish, he favored "balance," and in English, he decried "amnesty."

In 2000, Santorum lost South Philadelphia, getting 15,947 votes in the seven major wards there, to 55,931 votes for Democrat Ron Klink.

When he was elected to the Senate in 1994, Santorum received 13,361 votes in South Philadelphia. Then-Sen. Harris Wofford (D., Pa.) got 33,827.

"Rick's got a solid base down here - he's known and liked," said Jimmy Dintino, a former GOP leader in the 26th Ward. "People appreciate his conservative principles." They also like Santorum's fight against New Jersey's opposition to dredging the Delaware River to deepen the port, Dintino said.

The area will be a battleground in any case. Strategists on both sides, and independent political analysts, know that Santorum must keep the Democratic margin of votes from Philadelphia as low as possible to win statewide.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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