Romney Soft-Pedals Pennsylvania

Photograph by Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Rick Santorum bowls in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, on April 4, 2012.

Pennsylvania is primarily a great place for primaries.

Four years ago, the Keystone State’s Democratic presidential primary gave Senator Hillary Clinton of New York one of her best party prizes: A nearly 10-percentage point victory over rival Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.  The battle of junior senators ultimately ended in Obama’s favor, of course.

This year, the state’s Republican primary holds out-sized importance for one of its natives: Senator Rick Santorum.

Trailing former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in the party’s primaries, Santorum has signaled that Pennsylvania will provide the boost he needs for a run against Romney in states more favorable to Santorum in May.

Losing Pennsylvania, on the other hand, will write the epitaph that many already have voiced for Santorum’s campaign.

Romney is playing the Pennsylvania expectations game carefully. Campaigning today in Harrisburg, Romney told reporters he expects Santorum to win his home state yet hopes to pick up some degates there. He also told Bloomberg’s Julie Davis and other reporters at his campaign headquarters there that he will win Pennsylvania in the fall and that winning there would win him the White House. Democrats have carried Pennsylvania for decades.

Note the edge, and onus, that Romney placed on winning one’s home state:

“I think everybody expects someone to win their home state,” Romney said. “Newt Gingrich won his state (Georgia), I won my state, I think people expect the senator to win his home state.”

Recent polling has shown Santorum favored marginally in his home state — yet that was before Romney claimed another major Midwestern victory in the Wisconsin Republican primary this week.  Public Policy Polling conducted a Pennsylvania survey last night and found Santorum trailing Romney by 37 percent to 42 percent. PPP called it “a dramatic turnaround” from last month, with Romney gaining 17 points over the period in Pennsylvania.

Romney’s hiring today of Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a communications director for former President George W. Bush, is another sign of the party’s senior strategists signing on to Romney’s candidacy.

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