Friday, September 30, 2005 - Bush's plunging popularity bodes ill for Santorum - Bush's plunging popularity bodes ill for Santorum: "Bush's plunging popularity bodes ill for Santorum
Being aligned with president not a good thing, poll finds.

By Jeff Miller
Call Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON | President Bush's falling approval ratings are casting a shadow over Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's bid for a third term, a new Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll found.

Among the 54 percent of Pennsylvania voters dissatisfied with Bush's job performance, only 9 percent intend to support Santorum while 57 percent back his likely Democratic challenger, Bob Casey Jr.

Overall, Casey leads Santorum, 37 percent to 29 percent, with 31 percent undecided.

Santorum is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate and in charge of shaping the message for his caucus. As such, he has been closely aligned with Bush on major policy initiatives, including tax cuts, the war in Iraq and personal accounts for Social Security.

But recently, Santorum criticized the White House strategy for building support for Social Security reform. He was also a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the administration to keep an Air National Guard unit at Willow Grove.

''It will be a significant challenge for Santorum to show a divide between him and the White House,'' said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg's Institute of Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.

The telephone survey of 477 voters was conducted between Sept. 18 and 25 and has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Opinions about Santorum, a leading conservative voice, were strongly divided.

Forty percent of voters have a favorable view of him and approve of the job he's doing. But 37 percent were unfavorable, and 36 percent disapproved of his job performance.

Twenty-nine percent of voters had a favorable view of Casey, while only 12 percent were unfavorable. But 57 percent were neutral toward Casey, and 3 percent had not heard of him at all.

Casey being a blank slate with most voters could work in Santorum's advantage as the campaign goes on and voters learn more about the challenger, Borick said.

But Santorum has work to do among seniors and Independents.

Casey leads 38 percent to 28 percent among voters 55 to 64 years old and 42 percent to 30 percent for those 65 and older.

Among Independents, Casey leads 33 percent to 14 percent.

The poll also found mixed results toward the candidates among voters with strong views on abortion.

Both candidates oppose abortion rights. Democrats courted Casey to run in hopes of neutralizing Santorum's advantage with anti-abortion voters. But the strategy also risked turning off abortion-rights supporters, a core Democratic constituency.

The poll found Santorum leading among abortion opponents, 41 percent to 26 percent, with 44 percent undecided.

Conversely, Casey is leading among voters who support abortion rights, 48 percent to 14 percent, with 36 percent undecided.

Borick said the result shows Santorum is the preference of most anti-abortion voters but not dominating the demographic. And while Casey is ahead among abortion-rights supporters, Borick said the numbers don't guarantee that they will be energized by his candidacy to turn out to vote.

Chuck Pennacchio of Bucks County, who is challenging Casey for the nomination, was not named in the poll. Pennacchio, a University of the Arts professor, supports abortion rights.

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