As is often the case in highly publicized contests, public appearances by Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger state Treasurer Bob Casey have been dogged by activists of every shape and size.
At the Santorum events it is the big inflatable gorilla. The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United to Protect Social Security have unleashed Grandpa Gorilla, an 11-foot-tall red gorilla meant to symbolize the giant monkey on the back of American young people should Santorum's plan for reforming Social Security be made law. The group accuses Santorum of supporting privatization, a move the protesters say would hurt the elderly and lower income Americans.
Americans United has already hosted rallies in Pennsylvania and will dispatch the big monkey to appear with Santorum as much as possible.
But Grandpa is only the second political critter to crop up at events in Pennsylvania. The state Republican committee has had a person in a duck suit, Bobby the Duck, trailing Casey for months. And the party plans to continue its web-footed pursuit of Casey, saying he has run a campaign based on not being Rick Santorum and has "ducked" taking a real stand on issues.
"All Bobby the Duck wants is for Bobby Casey Jr. to stop ducking debates with Rick Santorum," state GOP Executive Director Scott Migli told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review last week. "Casey has ducked Senator Santorum for nearly 280 days. Enough is enough."
The animal-based critiques come as more statewide polls show the race between Casey and Santorum tightening, with the Democrat's once double-digit lead dwindling to 5 or 6 points in recent surveys. Some political analysts point to the unrelenting barrage of Santorum campaign ads, fueled by a more than $20 million war chest, as the cause for the Casey's shrinking lead.
"It's been a very uneven playing field for the last several months," Jon Delano, political editor for KDKA television in Pittsburgh, told the Philadelphia News. "Santorum has double the money, he has more aggressive special-interest-group support, and you've had Rick Santorum ads coming out and a failure to respond by Bob Casey."
Most polls show Santorum facing an unhealthy dose of public opposition with one survey released Aug. 24 saying 26 percent of Pennsylvanians will be voting against Santorum rather than for Casey, and 46 percent saying the Republican incumbent is too close to President Bush.
As the race slogs into the fall, analysts are saying the already bruising battle will likely move beyond the more playful animal characters and into hard-core attacks.
"They will be painting each other with a broader brush," Jerry Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh, told U.S. News and World Review. "And it will be a black brush."
For one of the state's top political pollsters, the race is doomed to be ugly. G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College points to the fact that Santorum's approval rating, despite months of campaigning, has remained stuck at 37 percent.
"Despite millions of dollars in commercials, his numbers have remained pretty much the same as they have been. When people know someone for so long [they] have a fixed view," Madonna told the Philadelphia News. "Santorum has to bring Casey down to him, and then it's a race about who's the most unpopular."
A nationwide audience will get its first glimpse of this messy Keystone State contest on Sept. 3, when NBC's "Meet the Press" hosts a debate between Casey and Santorum.