At Pa. Leadership Conference, politicians gather to prove conservative credentials

    The crowded field of Republican U.S. Senate candidates vying for their party’s nomination in Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary are trying to prove their conservative credentials.

    Several had a chance to persuade those on hand at this past weekend’s gathering of small government activists.The Pennsylvania Leadership Conference is billed as the state’s largest yearly meet-up of conservatives.”These people here are the leaders of society. Or, at least they think they are,” said a Montgomery County man that goes by the name ‘Sledgehammer.’  He works with precious metals and real estate.”One of the things I do as a hobby is a sue judges and police officers and constables that don’t obey the constitution,” he said, “’cause I love the constitution.” These are not necessarily the people pushing levers and pulling strings to guide the direction of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.  During one seminar, arch-conservatives shouted their dissatisfaction with the way the state G.O.P. endorses candidates.This was no place for moderates. That much was clear in the often-voiced criticisms of G.O.P. presidential candidate Mitt Romney — and it was clear in a debate between the five Republican candidates for U.S. Senate.That’s right, five — and there used to be even more.David Christian, a Bucks County business consultant and military veterans’ advocate, was the first to speak. The question out of the gate was about personal liberty and freedom of religion.”We have to stand for something,” said Christian. “Our founding fathers had God in almost every session. The U.S. Senate starts off with a prayer.” The five men are hoping to land the G.O.P nomination next month in order to go head to head with incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Casey.Cumberland County lawyer Marc Scaringi, a former Senate staffer for now G.O.P presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, aimed fire at a fellow Republican candidate.”Senator Casey voted 98 percent of the time according to the way President Obama has instructed him to vote. And like Steve Welch, Senator Casey voted for Barack Obama in 2008,” said Scaringi to a rowdy crowd. It was like watching a flap of red meat go flying up in the air.Steve Welch, a Chester County entrepreneur, and the state Republican Party’s endorsed choice for Senate, quickly responded.”To be crystal clear, I voted for John McCain in ’08,” said Welch. “So we’re crystal clear on that.” Welch says he was a card-carrying Republican from voting age until 2005, when he switched his registration to Democrat out of frustration.  He said voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary as the lesser of two evils, before switching back to the G.O.P.”I strayed. And it was a mistake. If I had it to do all over again, trust me, I would fight like every one of you to change the party from within,” said Welch. “But I can’t do that. But I do believe in redemption.” Welch isn’t the only candidate with a pocked political past. Former coal businessman Tom Smith was a Democratic committeeman on his home turf of Armstrong County.  When the question came up how the candidates planned to win the Senate seat, Smith skipped over issues to talk strategy.”We are running ads across the state now,” said Smith. Smith’s campaign has reported having millions of dollars at the ready — even more than the Democratic incumbent.  His TV ads were first launched in December.”In the Senate, I’ll fight to repeal Obamacare, cut spending, and I’ll never vote to raise the debt ceiling,” says Smith in his ad. If former state House member Sam Rohrer of Berks County lacks that financial might, he made up for it at the P.L.C. with an endorsement from former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended the conference in Cumberland County.  It was Rohrer who had logged the most support by the gathering’s end, citing endorsements from Pentecostal pastors and the N.R.A.”I really do look forward to taking on Bob Casey in the debate,” said Rohrer. The candidates will spend the next four weeks trying to increase their name recognition among voters — by following the party’s national calls for smaller government, lower taxes and a repeal of the federal health care law.Casey has a challenger of his own in the upcoming April 24 primary — Democratic candidate Joe Vodvarka of Allegheny County.

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