Altmire, Critz face off

Published by Tim McNulty on .

Jason Altmire and Mark Critz had a debate, more or less, before editorial writers at the Post-Gazette Friday. While they're both pretty conservative Dems they did flesh out some policy differences. Here's my story from the main site:

Health care reform remains the defining feature of Pennsylvania's biggest congressional primary this spring, even though both Democrats in the 12th District race disagreed with President Barack Obama over his signature 2-year-old law.

Democratic congressmen Jason Altmire and Mark Critz are locked in a bitter fight for their party's nomination and are the only incumbents statewide facing off April 24. There is plenty of legislation the pair disagree on, but much of the internecine battle pivots on the health package both of the conservative Democrats opposed.

When Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, voted against the measure in 2010, it created a backlash with organized labor, which had supported him since his first congressional run in 2006. Every major union in Western Pennsylvania is supporting Mr. Critz, D-Johnstown. Mr. Altmire in turn has endorsements from Democratic committees in Allegheny, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.

"I'm confident we're going to pick up the lion's share of votes from working families," Mr. Altmire said in a talk with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial writers Friday. "There was some animosity generated over the health care issue and the vote that occurred and [unions] have been looking to run somebody against me in the primary ever since."

Mr. Critz won a special election in 2010 to replace the late Rep. John Murtha and was not yet in Congress to vote on the health package. But he said he would have opposed it because of detrimental effects on rural hospitals in his current district, heavily represented by Cambria and Somerset counties.

As for his support from labor, Mr. Critz said "I've developed a very strong relationship with them. They trust me that at the end of the day I'll be there standing with them."

Republicans in charge of redistricting combined Mr. Altmire's current 4th District seat with Mr. Critz's 12th District seat last year. The district covers parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Cambria, Lawrence, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. Edgeworth attorney Keith Rothfus is unopposed for the GOP nomination to the seat.

Every study on congressional voting patterns shows the two men are among the most conservative Democrats in Pennsylvania's delegation, but they do have some differences. Mr. Altmire supported a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution; federal funding for Planned Parenthood; the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill; and supported repealing the "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Mr. Critz took opposite positions.

The balanced budget amendment was a Republican-driven measure that Mr. Critz said would endanger Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits. It "is pandering to the right wing and would be devastating to programs," he said. Mr. Altmire denied the entitlements would be hurt.

Mr. Altmire called the military policy on gays part of "the civil rights issue of our time," while Mr. Critz said he was dissatisfied when the military did not issue a requested report on its effect on bases.

He said he did not support financial industry reform because it would hurt small banks and credit unions in his district. Mr. Altmire did not buy that, saying institutions with less than $10 billion in assets would have been exempted.

Coming after the financial meltdown in 2008, only "the far right of the Democratic party" voted against Dodd-Frank, said Mr. Altmire. "I can't imagine voting against doing something when we almost literally saw our entire economy collapse. That for me was a very easy vote."


Etch a Sketch lives at PLC

Published by Karen Langley on .

The Etch a Sketch isn't going anywhere, if Rick Santorum has anything to say about it.

The former Pennsylvania senator made it through most of his speech this morning at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference -- and much of his argument against rival Mitt Romney -- without pulling out one of the toys. But not all the way.

Santorum got some of his biggest applause this morning when he went after President Obama for the federal health care overhaul and restrictions on drilling -- and then said Romney lacks credibility to prosecute the same case.

"What can Governor Romney do?" Santorum said. "Nothing. He agreed with him. Oh, now he's for repealing Obamacare. Now he's for drilling. But he wasn't."

"As his top adviser said..." Santorum said, with a pause, before pulling out a red Etch a Sketch. The move got laughs.

"Folks, we don't need people who write their public policy in Etch a Sketch," he said.

It didn't take long for the campaigns of Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- as well as the Democrats -- to pounce earlier this week after senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom compared the transition to a general election campaign to the shaking of an Etch a Sketch. He had been asked during an appearance on CNN if the Romney risked being pushed too far to the right during the primary campaign. 

Photo: New York Times, March 21



Polite applause for Santorum in PA

Published by Karen Langley on .

santorumRick Santorum won a polite reception from Pennsylvania conservatives this morning as he said that losing his Senate seat in 2006 allowed him to understand the frustrations of voters outside Washington.

The Republican presidential candidate told attendees of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference that he's often asked along the campaign trail about the 17-point loss.

"The greatest gift, from a political point of view, was that distance," he said. "It was being able to look from the outside in at what was going on and to get to see the frustrations that I would hear from you, from conservatives, and the frustration about what was going on in Washington that, candidly, I on the outside just didn't quite resonate with me."

Santorum used his appearance to make a broad pitch to the constituency that first sent him to public office, describing his vision of a nation with a moral purpose and repeating his argument that Republicans would cede the issue of health care in the general election by nominating Mitt Romney. 

He also looked to set expectations for the primary elections elsewhere in the country, telling the crowd he expected to "do great" today in Louisiana and "battle it out" on Tuesday in Wisconsin. Santorum is scheduled to campaign the rest of the day in Wisconsin.

Yesterday, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina addressed the conference on behalf of Romney, and Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak later today.

Santorum seemed to gain steam this morning when, more than halfway through his speech, he transitioned to making his case against Romney. Santorum said he himself has advocated for 20 years for a free-market approach to health care reform, winning a loud response from the audience. 

"I've got a strong track record to show a stark contrast with President Obama on the signature issue of the day," he said.

But he described Romney, who he called "the leading candidate in this race," as having ceded the authority to argue against the federal health care law. He said Romney is "a decent man but he's uniquely disqualified" to challenge Obama on health care.

"What's his record on health care?" he said. "The creator of Romneycare, a government mandated health care system that is driving costs through the roofs."

UPDATE, 11 a.m. -- Santorum's remarks drew some intermittently strong applause lines, after what was a partial standing-ovation to greet him. Supporters had distributed signs, though a portion remained on the round tables rather than in the air.


Conservatives take over Camp Hill

Published by Laura Olson on .


We'll have more on Santorum soon, but here's a look from today's paper at the conservative confab underway in Camp Hill:

At an annual gathering of Pennsylvania conservatives here Friday, much of the praise was directed toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as his team continued its march into former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's home turf. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, while saying that he intends to remain neutral in the April 24 primary, described Mr. Romney as a conservative committed to limited government.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, speaking on behalf of the Romney campaign, touted his status as a Washington outsider and his intent to undo the federal health care law.

"President Obama has only criticized Gov. Romney -- he has not talked about any other candidates," Ms. Haley said. "He's the only one he's scared of."

Their comments were among those kicking off two days of candidate schmoozing from the top of the Republican primary ballot on down. Two GOP presidential contenders -- Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who has roots in central Pennsylvania -- will bookend today's panels, which will include a U.S. Senate candidate debate.

While Texas congressman Ron Paul is not expected to attend, volunteers staffed a table stocked with T-shirts and pamphlets.

The yearly Pennsylvania Leadership Conference weekend attracts hundreds of GOP activists and elected officials from across the state. Chairman Fred Anton, also president and CEO of the state's manufacturers group, described it as a gathering of conservatives rather than the Republican Party.

Attendees will be voting in a presidential straw poll, the results of which will be released this afternoon. That ballot -- on which they can select their first, second and last choice for chief executive -- could give a glimpse as to how the Republican base feels about Mr. Santorum six years after he was ousted from office.


Daily Santorum: Dirty pool

Published by Tim McNulty on .


Matt Drudge helped the Romney forces stop Rick Santorum's momentum in Michigan when he pummeled the ex Pa senator for some 2008 comments about Satan. Now Drudge is going in for the kill on new comments on Romneycare and Obama.

Yesterday Santorum, while still trying to paint Romney as a malleable Etch-a-Sketch on conservative policy, took the argument a step further by saying Romney and Obama are close to the same. From the NYT:

“You win by giving people a choice,” Mr. Santorum said. “You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there.”

He then added, “If they’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future” — the last part a clear reference to Mr. Romney.

The Romney campaign wasted no time in trying to turn Mr. Santorum’s words against him.

“I was disappointed to hear that Rick Santorum would rather have Barack Obama as president than a Republican,” Mr. Romney said in a statement e-mailed to reporters by a campaign official.

The Romney team handled the issue perfectly, garnering headlines like that above from a cooperative Drudge while also moving the conversation away from the flip-flopper stuff. Example A comes from concerned Santorum supporter Ed Morrissey at Hot Air:

It seems that Senator Santorum has forgotten the purpose of the Republican primary.  It’s to choose the most successful candidate to beat Obama in the general election.  It isn’t to test a few candidates to see whether the goal of beating Obama is worth the bother.

. . . I find this very, very disappointing, and potentially nullifying on those points.  I will, however, be open to whatever explanation Senator Santorum offers today.

(Santorum's explanation today: "I would never vote for Barack Obama over any Republican and to suggest otherwise is preposterous.")

Media types have tired with the GOP presidential race (which is hurting TV ratings) and were more than willing to jump on board with the anti-Santorum angle. Which isn't fair to Santorum, writes Matt Lewis at Daily Caller, because Santorum never said he would rather have Obama as president:

Santorum has been making this argument for months. This is a regular line of attack. But as I noted recently, gaffes ironically often come from comments (or variations of comments) that have become part of a candidate’s “stump” speech.

Drumbeats will continue for Santorum to stop the infighting and get out of the race, including this quote atop Politico's Playbook today:

DRIVING THE CONVERSATION -- Wayne Berman, a Romney campaign national finance co-chair, emails from his iPad: "There is a keen awareness in the party, particularly among fund raisers and elected officials, that Santorum is playing to hurt Romney so that Romney loses. Santorum sees himself as the nominee in 2016, and he's playing a 2016 game. You wouldn't continue to rip at Romney and tear at Romney and try to damage Romney if you were playing the normal, second-place game. The normal second-place approach is to rally around the nominee and become part of the leadership of the party.

And who is Berman, the guy telling Santorum about the rules of the game? He's the longtime beltway power player with ties to a former Connecticut treasurer who pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy in 1999.

Despite such pressures Santorum looks to be staying in a least through Pa's primary April 24. And he's already being announced by the Times-Picayune as the "likely big winner" in Louisiana tomorrow. He and Romney are signed up to address a Republican event in Lancaster April 17.

Santorum speaks at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference meetings tomorrow morning in Camp Hill, outside Harrisburg.