A 1-sided battle in Philly suburbs

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters gathered at the Iron Shop in Broomall, a family-owned maker of spiral staircases. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters gathered at the Iron Shop in Broomall, a family-owned maker of spiral staircases. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney)

Santorum says he's not writing the region off.

Posted: April 08, 2012

As the common thinking goes, Philadelphia's suburbs are home to just the sort of moderate Republican who is comfortable with Mitt Romney: well-educated, well-off, and well-disposed to his business background.

But if Romney's last major challenger, Rick Santorum, is to secure the home-state primary win he describes as crucial to his campaign, the former Pennsylvania senator can't afford to count those suburbs out.

So far, local Republican leaders say, Santorum has shown signs of doing just that.

With little more than two weeks to go until the April 24 Pennsylvania primary, Santorum has yet to make an appearance in what has historically been a GOP stronghold, hasn't put up a single television ad, and appears to have limited, if any, organizational support in the field - or from party leaders - to challenge the front-runner in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

"The Philadelphia suburbs are definitely solidly for Gov. Romney," said Robert B. Asher, a GOP power broker, Republican National Committee member from Montgomery County, and an avowed Romney supporter. "I don't think he has to focus on Rick here much at all."

Eustace Mita, a Media real estate developer who serves as Santorum's national finance director, acknowledged last week the former senator had spent much of his time focused on the central and western parts of the state, in smaller cities and rural areas where his support is believed to be strongest.

But, Mita said, Santorum recognizes the importance of Southeastern Pennsylvania and will plan campaign stops here soon.

"Rick's been a good friend to the Philadelphia area," he said. "We still have a good conservative base there. We're absolutely not taking it for granted."

He would do well to hurry. A month or two ago, pollsters had him leading Romney among Republicans in the state by 2-1 or more. But since the GOP presidential battle shifted to Pennsylvania last week, much has been made of several polls that showed the gap had narrowed. One survey, released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling, showed Romney leading the state by five points.

Break the state down by region, and the numbers get more interesting.

In Philadelphia and its suburbs, Romney bests Santorum by nine points, according to a Franklin and Marshall University poll that gave Santorum a narrow lead among likely Republican voters statewide. Romney also was ahead in the northeastern part of the state and in its other urban hubs, near Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

Historically, those densely populated areas have shown they can sway the GOP vote statewide. Republican voters in the Philadelphia suburbs - roughly 100,000 in each of four counties - made up as much as 25 percent of the party's overall turnout in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans won the majority of races.

In that same election, Republican turnout in likely Santorum strongholds such as Butler, Fayette, and Somerset Counties hovered at 15,000 per county.

And one need only look at the type of Republicans the Philadelphia suburbs have sent to Congress in recent years for a sense of their constituents' political predilections. Mike Fitzpatrick, Jim Gerlach, and Pat Meehan have campaigned on fiscal conservatism while largely staying out of the social issues that Santorum loves to argue about.

Where a more strident brand of conservatism has made inroads, it has followed the antigovernment, limited-spending, tea party vein instead of the culture warriors who have made up much of Santorum's support.

"Even as a senator, Santorum never had a lot of traction out here among Republicans," said Bob Guzzardi, a conservative activist in Montgomery County. "Even now, I get asked to make phone calls for [U.S. Senate candidates] Sam Rohrer and Tom Smith. I hear nothing about Rick Santorum."

That Romney made his first Pennsylvania primary stump speech Wednesday night in Broomall at the Iron Shop - a family-owned spiral-staircase manufacturer in Delaware County - came as no surprise. He boasted of his business bona fides to a cheering crowd of mostly affluent and well-educated voters. He never mentioned Santorum's name.

"I was really surprised at the energy in the room," said J. Wesley Leckrone, 42, a political science professor at Widener University who stopped in on his way home. "That's about as raucous as you get for Republicans."

It's a strategy that has served the former Massachusetts governor well in recent primaries. Despite lingering perceptions of Romney as a weak front-runner, he managed to secure wins in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio by planting himself in the more affluent and educated urban centers and their populous suburbs.

Santorum led by ratios as wide as 2-1 in some of those states' rural counties, but the sheer volume of suburban votes took Romney to victory.

Buoyed by a growing sense that it is only a matter of time before he clinches the nomination, Romney appears poised to seek a broader coalition of support in Pennsylvania. Advisers said that although he would revisit the Philadelphia region before April 24, those stops are mainly meant to lay the groundwork for the election in November.

Romney plans to make forays into Pennsylvania's coal country and conservative-leaning Lancaster County, friendly territories for Santorum, in hopes of making inroads "to show them that he doesn't have horns," Asher quipped.

The front-runner's forces are also flexing their financial muscles. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Romney backers just bought $2.9 million worth of television time to run ads starting Monday in the Philadelphia, Scranton, Erie, and Altoona areas.

Both candidates were staying off the trail for the Easter weekend. And Santorum aides said he and his wife would stay Monday with their 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who has a rare genetic disorder and who was hospitalized late last week.

Santorum has a rally scheduled for Tuesday at a sportsmen's club in Bedford, then an evening appearance with the religious-right leader James Dobson at Lancaster Bible College. On Wednesday, he is to be in the Philadelphia area, at an event hosted by WPHT-AM conservative talker Chris Stigall.

Meanwhile, at least one candidate has parked part of his operation in Philadelphia's backyard. The suburbs - where Democrats' numbers have risen in recent years - contributed to President Obama's victory in the state in 2008, and shape up to be a battleground again in November.

Neither Romney's nor Santorum's campaigns have devoted full-time staff to the region, but the man their party hopes to beat has opened 20 campaign offices in the state. When Romney was in Broomall, Democratic activists and elected officials fanned out at media events to counter his message.

"While the Republicans are out trying to get votes in this state," said Bill Hyers, the Obama campaign's state director, "we're building upon the foundation we already have for the fall."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

Inquirer politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.

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