At this point, the race may be Bob Casey's to lose -- poll after poll shows the incumbent barely managing 40 percent approval ratings -- but if Santorum, known as a stronger campaigner and debater than his challenger, finds a way to surge in the final lap, it's possible that moderate suburbanites could help give one candidate a nose-length victory.
"I think this is going to be a nail-biter, and absolutely the Jewish vote can make a difference," said Jeff Jubelirer, a GOP-leaning political consultant and analyst.
For moderate Republicans, as well as some Democrats for whom Israel tops the agenda, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) steadfast support for the Jewish state throughout his two terms -- as well as his focus on confronting the dangers of radical Islam -- more than makes up for any misgivings they might have about Santorum's stances on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as his tendency to so openly expose his own conservative Catholic religious views.
"I don't agree with him on every issue -- you're not going to agree with everything a politician does or says -- but on the key issues facing the Jewish community, I don't think there is any question which way the Jewish community should vote," said David Edman, a Santorum supporter who is a part of an informal group that advised the campaign on outreach to Jews.
"The major issue in the Jewish community is a fear that Santorum wants to impose his deeply held religious views on the rest of us," continued Edman. "I have known him for a number of years on a personal level, and that is not the case."
But for many, if not most, Jewish voters, the campaign is about one thing -- getting rid of Santorum, who they equate with President George W. Bush's Iraq policy, as well as his leadership in getting Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo family standoff. They're also quick to point out controversial comments he's made during his second term about homosexuals and illegal immigrants, as well as his opposition to the morning-after pill, a form of emergency contraception.
"The most emotional response that I get on any campaign is the feeling that people have against Rick Santorum. He's an anathema, no matter how he tries to reinvent himself," said Marcel L. Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee.
However, it's long been known that Casey, the son of former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, himself a pro-lifer, is no social liberal. Many Jewish Democrats are doing all they can to get Casey elected, even though they don't agree with his stance on abortion and other issues, simply because he's not Santorum.
"It certainly was an issue I thought very long and hard about," said Betsy Sheerr, a Democrat who helped start a political action committee that supports pro-Israel and pro-choice candidates.
Sheerr, a member of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, traveled to Israel with Casey on a 2005 mission to the Jewish state, and has decided to actively support him despite his personal opposition to abortion.
"You find a world of difference between Casey and Santorum," she argued. "Casey believes in family planning, he believes in emergency contraception, he believes in contraception -- period. Would I prefer if Casey were 100 percent pro-choice? You bet!"
Sheerr argued that Santorum and Casey are both staunchly pro-Israel, and voters have to decide on their preferred candidate based on other criteria.
Jewish Santorum-backers make the opposite pitch.
"If Israel is at the top of the list that determine your vote, there is no question that you are going to vote for Rick Santorum," said Kenneth Davis, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee. He cited Santorum's introduction of the Syria Accountability Act and the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which have not yet been passed.
Across Party Lines
The partisan tone of this year's election seems to have started right where 2004 left off. But some voters toward the center of their respective parties have crossed partisan lines in this election; the question is how many and how much of an impact will it have on the result?
Barton Hertzbach, also a member of federation's board of trustees, is a registered Republican who backed Bush in 2004, but this month is hosting a fundraiser for Casey at his Center City office. Hertzbach is uncomfortable with Santorum's alliance with the religious right.
He also said that Santorum has helped to polarize the Senate, an institution where cordial political debate was long thought to be the norm.
"I have every reason to believe that Bob will be strong on Israel," said Hertzbach. "If people don't feel comfortable where Casey is on choice, they are voting for Santorum. And I don't know anybody who is concerned about choice who is voting for Santorum."
Yet such voters do exist; Lori Lowenthal Marcus is one of them.
"I am a absolute dyed-in-the-wool Democrat," said Marcus, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, though she added she's supporting Santorum as a private citizen and not as an organizational head.
"Domestic issues are very important to me," she continued. "But Santorum has signed on to every resolution that has been in any way helpful to Israel. He's got his head and heart in the right direction with respect to security and foreign policy in the Middle East. Israel is facing an existential danger, but so far, very few Democrats are focused on that issue as much as they should be."
The stakes in the race are much higher than the political fortunes of two men. For Democrats, the trophy at the end of the finish line would be nothing less than control of the U.S. Senate, something the party lost in the 2002 midterm elections.
In order for the Democrats to entertain any hope of once again becoming a majority in the Senate chamber, Casey has to win. If Santorum were to triumph, he might very well become the second most powerful politician in the upper chamber, and one of the most influential in all of Washington.
Several recent polls suggest that Santorum has made a substantial dent in the challenger's double-digit lead by nearly monopolizing the airways over the summer. Both the Keystone and Quinnipiac University Polls had Casey ahead by six points in a head-to-head contest. But a USA Today Gallop Poll released last week still had Casey up by 18 points.
Either way, Santorum's low approval ratings -- and those of the president -- have led many pundits to suggest that all Casey has to do to ensure victory is avoid any serious gaffs down the stretch. Of course, antipathy toward Bush wasn't enough to elect Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
"I don't think Casey's a great campaigner, but at this point, I don't think he has to be," said Jack M. Treadway, a professor at Kutztown University and author of Elections in Pennsylvania. Treadway pointed out that a Democratic candidate hasn't won a regularly scheduled senate election since 1962. (Democrat Harris Wofford won a special election in 1991 after the death of Republican Sen. John Heinz.)
"My goodness, if the Democrats can't win this one, when can they win one?" he posed.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan "Cook Political Report," warned that it is too early to write off Santorum, especially if Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli manages to stick around and dip into Casey's pool of votes, à la Ralph Nader in 2000.
"Incumbents -- they really have a funny way of coming back," said Duffy. "But Santorum's hill is pretty steep."
Santorum himself acknowledged as much at an Aug. 31 campaign stop in Blue Bell, where he stumped with North Carolina Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
"We need your help," he told the several hundred people who had turned out for the event. "This is the area of the state where it's going to come down to. The suburban communities is where the action is at."