Jab, Punch, Jab, Punch
Towards the end of the Phillies season, as the team was in the midst of its (as always) losing effort to make the playoffs, manager Charlie Manuel was asked on a radio interview about Pat Burrell, the Phils perpetually slumping slugger.
I feel bad for Pat, Charlie replied, he's flustrated.
Thus, with his marvelous malaprop, did Manuel coin a new and wonderful word. A conflation of flustered and frustrated, flustration perfectly decribes those moments when things are going bad and you don't know what to do about it.
In the race for the U.S. Senate, Rick Santorum is flustrated.
The incumbent has spent $10 million or more to earn the love and respect of Pennsylvania voters and has fallen short -- way short. If the election were held today, Santorum would lose, perhaps by double-digits. Even with three-plus weeks until Election Day, it is unlikely he can catch up, his own problems compounded by the anti-Bush drag that threatens all Republicans. Political professionals (and professional bettors) have started to look at Pennsylvania and put a check mark next to the name of Bob Casey Jr.
So, is it any surprise that Santorum came out swinging at last night's televised debate on KDKA? To describe it, reporters covering the debate reached into their huge kit bags of sports cliches and pulled out the ones under the heading "BOXING." Here's a sample of the coverage: on KDKA-TV, which hosted the debate, in the Inquirer, in the Post-Gazette, (which also includes audio links) and in the Patriot News, whose story carried the headline: The gloves come off.
With Santorum, as always, what you see is you get: cold political calculation -- an aggressive debate strategy designed to rough-up Casey -- mixed with red-hot emotion. As he said at the end of the debate: "You can see from this debate -- I'm a passionate guy. I'm tough. I'm a fighter. But you know what? I'm an Italian kid from a steel town. What do you expect from me? ... I wasn't born into a family that had a great name."
Of course, Santorum's central problem is the feeling among voters that while he's happy to fight for you, he's just as happy to fight you. An example is the YouTube moment the senator had last month in Camp Hill, Pa. where a voter, who questioned the senator's residency, set Santorum off. Even when she tried to back off, he chased her down to verbally smack her a few more times. Have a nice day!
Santorum's first task in this campaign was to shed his image, apparently fixed in the minds of Democratic and swing voters, that he is an arrogant (explicit language alert) asshole, with a touch of fanaticism. My Merriam-Webster's defines fanaticism as an exhibition of "excessive enthusiasm, unreasoning zeal, or wild and extravagant notions on some subject." Sounds about right.
This is a tough image to shake and the poll numbers indicate Santorum hasn't succeeded, despite a series of ads designed to portray him as a nice guy. Santorum does burn hot. It surely flustrates him that what he sees as an asset -- his passion -- has become such a liability. In recent ads -- and in last night's debate -- he's shed the happy-face Mr. Nice Guy tee-shirt and gone back to being The Fighter.
But fight against whom? So far, he's been campaigning against a ghost. The Casey strategy has been to keep their guy under wraps and keep the focus on Santorum, under the sound theory that the incumbent's worst enemy is the guy who stares back at him when he looks into the mirror of his (Washington? Penn Hills?) home. Through the summer and into the fall, Santorum's been dancing around the ring, his gloves on, punching and jabbing at thin air. Last night, Casey showed up in the flesh, knowing Santorum would be coming at him, so he answered in kind. Santorum's better at it, but those Casey blows about cyberschooling hit the incumbent where it hurt the most with Pittsburgh voters.
The two meet again next week in debates in Philadelphia, so get your scoring cards ready. At least it will be interesting. But, at this late stage of the campaign, with Santorum's numbers stuck on loser, will it make a difference?
Like Charlie Manuel said, it's flustrating.