The final days of a five-way race between Republican candidates seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is becoming increasingly bitter, with dueling attack ads running up the tab on a low-key election that is poised to exceed $5 million before Tuesday's primary.
Steve Welch, Marc Scaringi and Tom Smith spoke Sunday night after GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney at a Franklin County Republican Party dinner as they scramble to connect with party faithful, many of whom have little idea who is running for U.S. Senate.
“Most of the time, it's Election Day before I make up my mind,” said Richard Beard, a dinner attendee from nearby Chambersburg who couldn't name the Republican candidates.
Welch, a Chester County entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is backed by Gov. Tom Corbett and endorsed by the state GOP, is in danger of losing.
The campaign of Smith, a wealthy former coal company owner from Armstrong County, has released internal polling results that show him leading comfortably. And he is financing a barrage of TV ads that has him on track to spend more than three times as much as his four rivals combined.
Smith delivered a standard, five-minute stump speech to about 500 attendees, never mentioning Welch while leaning heavily on his farm-family roots to anchor his points of view. But Welch appealed for sympathy – “I'm being attacked in this race,'' he said, not mentioning Smith sitting to his right -- and tried once again to explain his vote for Barack Obama in Obama's 2008 presidential primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Let me make one thing crystal clear tonight,” Welch said. “For president of the United States, I voted for John McCain, OK? Crystal clear.”
And then he attacked Smith, but not by name: “I'm being attacked by an individual that literally has never voted in a Republican primary.”
Scaringi, a suburban Harrisburg lawyer, has generated little support and raised little cash.
Complicating the race is a fourth candidate, former state Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County, who remains popular with conservatives who liked his advocacy as a lawmaker to eliminate property taxes and supported him in an unsuccessful primary run against Corbett two years ago.
With weather forecasters expecting rain and snow on Monday and Tuesday for much of the western half of Pennsylvania, turnout in a primary election already lacking excitement could be extremely low and make the result that much more unpredictable.
Allegheny County spring manufacturer Joseph Vodvarka is the seventh candidate in the senate race, who's running against Casey in the Democratic primary. Vodvarka said he spent just over $5,000 to get his name on the ballot and was excited about his name placement, just below the presidiential candidates.
Casey's perceived strength -- he whipped incumbent Republican Rick Santorum in 2006 -- helped put the race on the GOP's back burner.
Another dinner attendee, Duane Schroyer of Greencastle, said he planned to vote for Smith, but only after he asked to be reminded of who exactly was running.
Last week, an independent group named Freedom Fund for America's Future began running a TV ad attacking Smith, although it hasn't revealed the source of the $175,000 that it reported spending so far.
The ad attacks Smith for being a registered Democrat for more than four decades, donating money to Democrats -- he gave $2,400 to U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire's campaign in 2009 -- and raising taxes as a township official more than 30 years ago. It closes with the statement, “conservative Republicans can't trust Tom Smith.”
Smith's campaign responded with an ad that attacked Welch and showed a photo of Welch's face next to a photo of Obama's.
“I've been a strong conservative all my life,”Smith says to the camera in the ad. “I would never vote for Barack Obama, but Steve Welch voted for him. That's the key difference in this race.”
Welch insists that he voted for McCain and returned to the Republican Party after switching to the Democratic Party for several years out of frustration with Republican-controlled Washington.
Smith's generous campaign giving over the years has heavily favored Republicans, but he claims not to remember whom he voted for in numerous Democratic primary elections as recently as 2010. Smith did not vote in the 2008 Democratic primary, according to county records.
Rohrer, meanwhile, has taken heat for “`yes” votes he cast on bills to raise lawmakers' pay and pensions.
The conservative editorial page of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper opined earlier this month that the race is a “mess” and endorsed a fifth candidate, David Christian, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran from Bucks County who helped found the Vietnam Veterans of America and served as a U.S. Senate fellow from 1998 to 2002.
The Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday is the same day as the Delaware Presidential primary and primaries in New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.