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What’s Going on in Pennsylvania?

The latest poll in the Pennsylvania Senate race is the sort of result that makes political observers sit up and take notice. The Rasmussen poll of likely voters shows incumbent Senator Bob Casey, Jr. leading Republican challenger Tom Smith by just one percentage point. The 46-45 percent margin is shocking because this is a race that virtually no one in either party thought would be competitive, let alone be in doubt this late in the campaign. However, it also shows that Democratic confidence about Pennsylvania being a reliably blue state may have been overstated all along.

The smart money is still on Casey to pull out a win, as well as on President Obama to take Pennsylvania without that much trouble. But both Casey and Obama have seen their leads shrink dramatically in the Keystone State in the last month. Though no Republican has carried Pennsylvania in a presidential election since 1988, it should be remembered that the GOP won both the governorship and a Senate seat (Pat Toomey) in 2010. Yet while Obama has maintained a consistent, albeit decreasing lead, in Pennsylvania, Casey may actually be in more trouble than his backers are willing to admit. His problems are due in part to growing Republican enthusiasm as Mitt Romney gained momentum this month. But Casey’s own shortcomings as a candidate are the major reason he finds Smith snapping at heels. If he can’t right himself, there is a chance the GOP will make up for unexpected losses elsewhere and steal a seemingly safe blue Senate seat.

To listen to most Democrats, the explanation for what’s happened in the Senate race is readily apparent: a low-key candidate running a lackluster campaign against a millionaire willing to spend money freely. They’re not far wrong about this. Casey is well known to be a nice guy in a business filled with not-so-nice people, but he has the charisma of a plate of soggy, mashed potatoes. A non-controversial mien was the right formula six years ago when Democrats nominated Casey to knock off the controversial and widely disliked Senator Rick Santorum. But to the dismay of many Democrats, the stealth candidate of 2006 became the stealth senator. Though he can still trade on his identity as the son of a popular namesake two-term governor, Casey is a virtual nonentity in the state despite being the incumbent. Smith, a former Democrat who owned coal mines, is a political novice who won his nomination in a Tea Party insurgency. But he has avoided gaffes and spent freely. After a couple of months of the airwaves in major markets being deluged with ads denouncing Casey as “Senator Zero,” Smith has gone from a double digit deficit to being virtually tied.

The idea of Smith actually beating Casey is still scoffed at by most savvy observers. But Casey’s characteristic low-key strategy has played right into Smith’s hands, as he has dominated the political stage in the state. Even worse by granting Smith only one debate (which will be taped today and then aired on Sunday) Casey has set himself up for some real problems if the Republican is seen as holding his own or even besting the incumbent.

If the Democratic machine is able to generate — by hook or by crook — a big turnout in Philadelphia, Casey may be saved. But the era in which anyone named Bob Casey can simple put his name on the ballot in Pennsylvania and expect to cruise to victory is probably over. In a year in which Republican enthusiasm is rising in the way it did in 2010, Smith must now be said to have at least a fighting chance. So must Romney, though he may have a higher hill to climb in the state. While it might be foolish for Republicans to divert scarce resources from other battleground states to contest Pennsylvania, there’s little doubt it will not be the Democratic cakewalk that most people thought it would be only a couple of months ago.