by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania
Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 30 August 2006) – Republican U.S. Senator Rick Santorum – who trails in polls against Democrat Bob Casey Junior – delivered an unexpectedly provocative address Monday that focused on foreign policy.
Scholars are parsing the actual content of the speech.
Political pundits, meanwhile, are wondering about its intended effect.
The Pennsylvania Press Club invited both men to speak. Casey, last month, was rhetorically restrained.
"I think this is going to be an election about accountability for your record and it’s going to be an election about where we’re taking the people of America," he said in even tones.
Santorum used his time this week before the same audience quite differently.
"People are dying. We are at war. This is serious business," Santorum said.
For 20 minutes, Santorum spoke forcefully, describing the ongoing U.S .conflict as not with a place, such as Iraq, or a method, such as terror, but with Islamic fascists.
"We get bogged down on Sunni and Shi’ite, with secular governments and non-secular governments, and we say they’re all different. No, they’re not. They’re a common enemy," Santorum said.
Santorum also made a prediction about his campaign for re-election.
"Whether I like it or not, this election is going to turn on this issue," Santorum said. "Because this is the issue of our time."
Reaction from Casey spokesman Larry Smar was muted.
"Homeland security and foreign policy are very important issues, but there are a lot of issues," Smar said. "And the biggest issue in this campaign is changing the direction in Washington."
Political pundits saw the speech as vintage Santorum. Steve Peterson is the director of the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. "His provocative position with respect to Iran certainly is consistent with his views on foreign policy, and the fact that it was rendered in such a provocative way, I think, is consistent with his approach to political issues – to kind of take tough positions out there," Peterson said.
Melanie Blumberg at California University of Pennsylvania said Santorum will struggle to paint Casey as weak on defense because Casey has no national voting record – but said that may not be what Santorum is trying to do anyway.
"I think that he’s out there alone on this, trying to portray himself as being an expert and trying to portray himself as trying to protect America," Blumberg said. "It’s interesting, because he seems to be taking – he is taking – a harder stand on this than the Bush administration."
Chatter about domestic political implications may eclipse discussions about the actual policies Santorum is proposing.
But these ideas require critical analysis, according to Bahgat Gawdat, a Middle East specialist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
This is especially true because – if re-elected – Santorum will not be just another senator. He would likely be the second-ranking member of the majority party and has positioned himself to the right of the President on Iran.
Gawdat said efforts at securing long-term peace and stability could be hampered by casting the conflict as a holy war.
"We are in war in Iraq and we do not want another war, and it is better to open channels," Gawdat said. "As President Bush said, we should not outsource our foreign policy. For a long time, we’ve been dependent on Europe in any dialogue with Iran. And we learned that this is the wrong approach."
Santorum, for his part, said he is not worried about offending anyone, abroad or here, if that’s what’s necessary to defend Western ideals.