New Poll Shows Santorum In Trouble In Pa

03.28.12 | Bob Price

Santorum enjoyed a 29-point lead over Mitt Romney in February’s F&M poll. The lead has dwindled to a two-point advantage in March.

The staggering reversal comes with Romney yet to spend any time or money in the commonwealth. It sets the stage for a highly contested April 24 state Republican primary.

The poll, conducted from March 20 through Sunday, found that native son Santorum’s support among likely Republican voters fell from 45 percent to 30 percent since February. In the same time, Romney’s appeal grew from 16 percent to 28 percent.

Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna said the dramatic shift is largely down to Santorum himself.

“He was leading a month ago when he was on message, talking about the economy and foreign policy,” Madonna said. “But his forays into cultural and social issues have certainly cost him support. It’s been provocatively off message.”

The F&M poll surveyed 505 registered Republicans. The survey has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stayed in single digits in the new poll. Gingrich, who was born in Harrisburg and raised in Hummelstown, finished fourth.

The poll also found that a significant number of Pennsylvania Republicans backing Romney are tiring of the combative GOP nomination race.

Some 18 percent of the former Massachusetts’ governor’s supporters might vote against the Republican nominee in November if the nominee is not Romney, according to the poll.

“The longer this goes on, the more and more Republicans are saying this has to end,” Madonna said. “In 2008, this ideological divide didn’t exist between [Democratic nomination rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama] and it wasn’t as bitter and divisive. This [2012 race] has gotten personal.”

Santorum confidants struggled to explain the drop.

“It’s hard to imagine without any real campaigning going on in the state that you could have that dramatic a switch,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, a Santorum ally. “It will be close when all the [GOP] establishment and money pours in for Romney. That’ll make it a bigger hurdle, but we’re confident he’ll be able to carry his home state.”

In recent weeks, Santorum’s campaign has faltered from a pox of damaging statements.

Campaigning in Puerto Rico two weeks ago, he told voters in the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory that officially adopting English should be a pre-condition of statehood.

Santorum followed that misstep last week in Illinois by appearing insensitive to the nation’s jobless.

“I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me. My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. It’s something more foundational that’s going on.”

And 48 hours later, Santorum drew widespread condemnation from within his own party after telling Texas Republicans, “We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with” Romney.

He lost Puerto Rico and Illinois. Texas votes May 29.

Santorum’s comments and subsequent losses feed into the common critique that his combative, hard-right ideology makes him a general-election pariah. And a verbal altercation with a New York Times reporter on Sunday didn’t help dispel the growing caricature.

The Romney campaign has used the incident to add to the portrait of an irritable candidate panicking in the final stages of the campaign.

“Rick Santorum is becoming more desperate and angry and unhinged every day,” Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said.

Romney himself was a bit less disparaging.

“I’m not going to worry about what Rick is saying these days,” Romney told CNN. “I know that when you fall further and further behind, you get a little more animated.”

Santorum was less animated Saturday when he contritely addressed the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of commonwealth conservative activists.

Having represented Pennsylvania in Congress for 24 years before he was soundly defeated in 2006, Santorum indirectly acknowledged that he brought about his ouster by supporting Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in 2004.

“It was a real eye-opening, awakening experience for me, and I took that as a good bit of self-correction,” he said .

The measured, hat-in-hand appeal bore episodic fruit.

Santorum won the PLC straw poll, drawing 45 percent to Romney’s 28 percent. Paul, who grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Gettysburg College, won 16 percent.

Despite addressing the PLC in person, Gingrich finished last with 10 percent.

Even with the straw poll results, the tempered applause directed toward Santorum at the conference suggests that the politically compatible PLC crowd had not forgiven his 2004 transgression.

Wednesday’s Franklin & Marshall poll confirms that Santorum faces an uphill climb to win back some conservatives. Complicating matters is the likelihood that even if he takes the Pennsylvania primary in a landslide, he’ll leave with a pittance of delegates.

Pennsylvania’s GOP primary voters select delegates by their own name in each congressional district. But the delegate candidates are not directly identified with any presidential candidate on the ballot. In that setup, voters are more likely to select a delegate they know, or the first person listed.

Gingrich and Romney have prominently placed delegates all over the state.

“Pennsylvania is not as important to Romney as it is obviously to Santorum,” said Alan Novak, a Romney supporter and former Pennsylvania GOP chairman. But because of his superior delegate ballot placement, “Romney can end up with as many or more delegates out of Pennsylvania.”

The new Franklin & Marshall poll will be seen as an open invitation for the Romney forces to press their monetary and organizational advantage, beat Santorum in his own state, and eliminate him from the race once and for all.