PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- When he won an upset victory in a special Senate election in Pennsylvania three years ago, Harris Wofford summed it up in a characteristically self-effacing way: "I was just lucky to be the messenger of a message that was there."
It was a perceptive piece of political analysis. A year later, another Democrat, Bill Clinton, won the presidency by exploiting the same message -- that voters demanded that more attention be paid to such domestic concerns as health care.
Now, ironically, the operative question as Mr. Wofford seeks re-election is whether his Republican challenger may be another "messenger of a message that was there" -- in this case, an angry national reaction against President Clinton and the Democratic Party.
On the face of it, Rep. Rick Santorum, the 36-year-old Republican candidate, should not be a particularly imposing challenger. He has been in the House only two terms, and Mr. Wofford has done nothing to outrage constituents since he was elected over former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
It is equally true, however, that this is a very different year in which, in one state after another, opinion polls are defining an anti-Democratic message clear enough to put almost any Democratic incumbent in jeopardy. If the Republicans can defeat Mr. Wofford, there is at least an even chance that they will win in enough states Nov. 8 to capture the seven seats they need to gain control of the Senate for the final two years of Mr. Clinton's term.
There has been nothing remarkable about this campaign so far. There have been the usual nyah-nyah exchanges of accusations in negative TV commercials -- Mr. Santorum accusing Mr. Wofford of lying, Mr. Wofford accusing Mr. Santorum of failing to show up for work often enough. Each candidate plans to spend about $7 million, probably the minimum for a full-scale effort in a state in which a television buy costs about $500,000 a week.
Opinion polls, both published and private, show Mr. Wofford with a nominal lead. When only the voters most likely to show up at the polls are considered, his lead is within the polls' margins of error.
That is the central question for Senator Wofford and other Democrats running this year -- whether the lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton and the party establishment in Washington will depress the turnout of Democratic voters, even beyond the declines that are predictable in nonpresidential years.
"That's a valid worry," says Paul Begala, the consultant who is advising the Wofford campaign as well as the White House. But, he adds, this is also a campaign that may turn out voters because there is "a clear choice between two big ideas" -- the Reaganesque conservatism of Mr. Santorum against Mr. Wofford's belief that government can play a worthwhile role in improving the lot of Americans. "They have a totally different world view," Mr. Begala says.
Mr. Wofford seems ambivalent. On the one hand, he recognizes that there is some current of anger running through the electorate. "It's a crazy season, it's a lousy season," he says. His last campaign, he says, "tapped into a lot of anger, and it's there now, probably a little more so."
But he also contends that Democrats are "united and engaged" in the campaign. As for health care reform, the issue with which he has been most identified, he says, "what I get is, 'Keep fighting for it.' "
On the question of his identification with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Wofford is saying essentially what such Democrats are saying everywhere. "People have a lot of common sense," he said. "They know this is a choice between Santorum and me."
Asked whether he intends to invite the president to the state to help him, the Democratic senator quickly points out that Mr. Clinton came to Pennsylvania for a fund-raiser four months ago. What about now? There is a pause, then: "I don't know; we only plan a couple of days ahead of time."
Mr. Santorum is sanguine about the prospect that the election will be seen, at least in part, as a referendum on Mr. Clinton. "The more you can nationalize a race, the more people vote ideology and tickets rather than individual candidates," he says. (Or, put another way, the more likely they are to use their ballots to send a message.)
The contrast between the two candidates could hardly be sharper. Mr. Santorum won his seat in 1990 by defeating an incumbent Democrat with 51 percent of the vote. He was re-elected with 61 percent in 1992 in a district -- largely working-class suburbs of Pittsburgh -- that had been made even more Democratic in registration (70 percent) by reapportionment. His showing is particularly striking when one notes that Michael Dukakis won there with 58 percent in 1988 and Mr. Clinton with 52 percent, to 30 for George Bush and 18 for Ross Perot in 1992.
In the House, Mr. Santorum has earned a name for himself as part of an aggressive group of young, tough conservatives who rigidly resist taxes and big government. In his first term, he was one of the "gang of seven" Republican freshmen who pushed successfully for action on the House bank and post office scandals.
His message is clearly directed at voters who are fed up with government's growing more powerful and controlling more aspects of American lives -- what he calls "the whole concept of government taking their freedom away." Or, as he put it to people who heckled him in Turtle Creek the other day, "I know you want to be antagonistic . . . but we can all agree that the federal government takes too much of your money and makes too many decisions."
That same argument is, of course, the one that doomed the health care reform plan with which Mr. Wofford was so closely identified.
The Democrat and his advisers argue that Mr. Santorum may be too conservative for Pennsylvanians when compared with such relative moderates who have succeeded on the Republican line as Sen. Arlen Specter and the late John Heinz, whose death in a plane crash led to the special election.
At 68, Mr. Wofford is a throwback. He came into view first on John F. Kennedy's campaign staff, then served in the White House as an adviser on civil rights and later as associate director of the Peace Corps, then pursued a career as a lawyer and college president before making his first race for public office in 1991. The liberal label that Democrats are fleeing in droves was made for him.
But Mr. Wofford is convinced the electorate still has some faith that change can be accomplished. "The last time," he says, "we sent a signal that was heard far and wide. Pennsylvanians are proud of that."
Perhaps so. But it is not yet clear what signal those Pennsylvanians are preparing to send this time.