Poll finds Santorum surging among Pa. voters

Posted: February 23, 2012

They are suburbanites and religious people, employers and retirees, millionaires such as John M. Templeton Jr. of Bryn Mawr and homemakers such as Loretta Hill of Devon. What they have in common is an admiration for Rick Santorum.

"No matter what you think about his social views, he's willing to hold his ground," Hill, 58, said. "I think that's one of the things people respect about him."

Pennsylvania's Republican primary may still be two months away, but the presidential campaign of the state's former senator is already raising the excitement level of his supporters back home.

And a new poll suggests their numbers are growing.

Buoyed by victories in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri and by surveys suggesting strong showings in next week's Arizona and Michigan votes, campaign operatives now seek to challenge the conventional wisdom that Pennsylvania's more moderate Republicans have already lined up behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The needle may be moving. A Franklin and Marshall College poll released Thursday gave Santorum a nearly 30-point lead over Romney among Pennsylvania Republicans - a far cry from what some expected in a state that tossed the senator out on his ear in 2006 with an embarrassing 18-point rout.

The poll conducted Feb. 14 to 20, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.9 percentage points, found that 22 percent of GOP voters here were undecided.

"There's a growing support here, like nationally, for someone like Rick - someone who wasn't Pennsylvania's top choice in December," said James Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research. "I think a lot of Pennsylvanians are giving him a second look."

Key to Santorum's Pennsylvania push will be the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia suburbs, seen as his weakest points of support in the state. In recent weeks, backers in those areas have hosted fund-raising dinners hoping to give voters a fresh take on their former senator.

Meanwhile, campaign aides have worked to allay fears among moderates that Santorum would seek to legislate his conservative personal beliefs on contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.

Albert Ostien, 84, a devout Catholic retiree from West Chester, has received the message. He said Thursday that although he shared many of Santorum's socially conservative views, he would advise taking the approach of the nation's first Catholic president.

"Kennedy kind of left the church at the door," Ostien said. "Santorum has his beliefs, but I don't think he's out to tell people what to do. You can't force people to do things." (Actually, Santorum has criticized John F. Kennedy's stance on church-state separation.)

Philadelphia's four suburban Pennsylvania counties handed Santorum some of his biggest losses in 2006 despite being held by Republicans at the time. In Montgomery and Delaware Counties, Democrat Bob Casey Jr. trumped Santorum by nearly 24 points.

In the latest Franklin and Marshall poll, nearly 60 percent of the 592 registered Republicans surveyed hailed from central and western parts of the state, considered the base of support for Santorum, a native of Western Pennsylvania. Those numbers prompted one veteran GOP operative, former Delaware County Council member Wallace Nunn, to dismiss the results.

Most of the Philadelphia area's GOP establishment is not wavering in its support for Romney, he said.

"I just don't believe when the primary comes about, he's going to be as popular as this poll is showing," said Nunn, a Romney backer. "And if Santorum can't win here, he can't win anywhere."

Eustace Mita, a Media real estate developer serving as Santorum's national finance chairman, conceded that fund-raising in the suburbs had not always been easy.

"Ten months ago, when I was making calls, no one gave us a chance," Mita said, chalking it up to Romney's portrayal as the inevitable nominee. "Democrats are willing to give to the candidate that best meets their ideology. Republicans want a return on their investment."

Mita, who is relatively new to campaigning, wants to change that. In late January, he and relatives were hosts to the candidate at a Chester County fund-raiser. Along with Santorum stalwarts, the group included a few GOP voters yet to make up their minds, said Hill, who attended.

"There were a number of people that came in fresh and were very impressed with what he had to say," she said.

In 2006, Santorum's strongest suburban support came from religious-values voters, including the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, a group run by former Chester County Commissioner Colin Hanna. Financial help came from Templeton, an evangelical Christian who heads the Templeton Foundation.

Hanna and Templeton are once again key supporters. Hanna and his wife have donated $5,000. Templeton has emerged as Santorum's largest financial backer in the state, giving more than $1 million to the so-called super PAC backing Santorum, and appearing at fund-raisers across the Philadelphia suburbs.

But this time, such supporters are talking less about religion and more about their candidate's blue-collar roots and economic platform.

"You really have to look at where Rick is in terms of the economy," Mita said. "He's been able to articulate that better now than he did in '06."

After taking that look, David Service of Huntingdon Valley, who runs an employee-benefits firm, has made up his mind.

"The guy speaks my language," Service said. "He's pro-life, he treats his family well. You need someone who offers a clear distinction to beat [President] Obama in November."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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