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Santorum Continues to Close Gap on Casey

In the most closely watched Senate race this year, embattled Republican incumbent Rick Santorum has pulled to within 6 points of State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., 47%-41%. Franklin & Marshall's Keystone Poll released yesterday represents the first time since June of last year that Mr. Santorum has not trailed by double digits. Back in November Mr. Casey's lead was a whopping 16 points.

If the tightening in this race is confirmed by other polls in the coming days, it is obviously positive news for Mr. Santorum's chances of holding on to his seat, but it also exposes a disconnect between the much publicized national polls that trumpet Bush's low job approval and the poor generic polls for Republicans as signs of a huge Democratic wave this fall.

President Bush's job approval fell six points in the Keystone Poll - mirroring similar drops in his job approval in recent national polls - but over the same time Mr. Santorum narrowed Mr. Casey's lead by five points. Last month I pointed to the favorability gap between the two candidates as an opportunity for Mr. Santorum to shrink Mr. Casey's overall lead. This month the Keystone Poll's polling director, G. Terry Madonna, says little has changed in the race except that "Casey's unfavorable ratings have increased from 8 percent to 13 percent since February."

With Mr. Casey registering only a 13% unfavorable rating - as compared 33% for Mr. Santorum - there remains plenty of room for the Santorum campaign to drive Casey's unfavorable number higher. If President Bush can turn his job approval around just a little and Santorum is successful in continuing to drive Casey's unfavorables higher, this race can continue to tighten.

It should be stressed that this is only one poll and other polls may still show a double digit lead for Casey. But if they do not, this could be the first inkling that many pundits are misreading the national playing field with the focus on President Bush's poor numbers.

The Santorum-Casey race is not just another seat that is in play like Mike DeWine (R) in Ohio or Jim Talent (R) in Missouri. Democrats must beat Mr. Santorum to have any chance for a big election night this fall. It's hard to imagine Democrats will be in a position to take back the Senate - or the House for that matter - if the Santorum-Casey race is a toss-up heading into election day.