RECENT POLLING in the so-far somnambulant Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bob Casey and Republican challenger Tom Smith defies accepted political wisdom and suggests an actual pulse.
Is there life out there?
Is it possible that the heir to Pennsylvania's most powerful political name, he who offers the trifecta of statewide appeal (pro-life, pro-gun, pro-labor), he who was the Santorum-slayer, is suddenly imperiled by a man named Smith?
Could it be that a rich conservative newcomer with ties to tea-party passions can cause Casey conniptions?
Before you nod off, consider.
In June, the respected Quinnipiac Poll had Casey leading Smith by 19 points (51-32). Last week, the Quinnipiac spread was six points (49-43). A Rasmussen Poll in July had Casey up 11 (49-38). Last week, it had Casey up seven (49-42).
A Daily News/Franklin & Marshall College Poll last week had Casey up 10 points. In June that poll had Casey up 21.
There's even a GOP-commissioned poll by Susquehanna Polling & Research that has the race essentially even: Casey 45, Smith 42.
Clearly, something's going on. Question is what, and will it matter?
National pollsters and pundits, including the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, still see the race as "leans Democratic" or "likely Democratic."
Casey insiders say that internal polls show Casey comfortably ahead. And campaign manager Larry Smar says, "We never put too much stock in public polls."
But all this feels like a wakeup call for the low-profile incumbent.
GOP consultant John Brabender, who's done campaigns for Gov. Corbett and Rick Santorum, says that such polls will push Casey to spend money and get engaged.
"I wonder if people are sitting out there asking what Bob Casey has done to get re-elected," says Brabender.
That's a key point of Smith's campaign, which calls Casey "Senator Zero."
(Casey's campaign website has no contact information other than a Philadelphia P.O. box, and his campaign says that no debate with Smith is yet scheduled.)
The other key point is Smith's money. The former coal-business multimillionaire so far has spent about $8 million, almost all on TV. He reportedly told a GOP luncheon in Lancaster that he'll spend $10 million more before Election Day.
When asked about the new money, Smith campaign manager Jim Conroy says: "The campaign is not going to comment" until the next financial filings, due Oct. 15.
The Casey camp this past weekend aired its first TV ad in Philly, the start of what Smar calls a "substantial" buy.
It's clearly intended to blunt Smith's progress.
The spot, "Cup of Tea," includes a clip of Smith from earlier this year saying, "I have started my own tea-party group back in Armstrong and Indiana County. We have 585 members."
The ad says Smith wants to privatize Social Security and "end Medicare as we know it" and asks whether "Tea Party Tom Smith" is "your cup of tea."
(If the race really tightens, expect ads with Smith comments comparing rape pregnancy to out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and Smith at a political rally where he asks two women what they're talking about and they say the "power of petite women" and he says he'd have guessed they were talking about "shoes.")
For his part, Smith's running an ad saying that he's "fed up" with what "Bob Casey and the political class have done to America." Speaking to the camera, Smith calls for a balanced-budget amendment, a simplified tax code and not paying Congress if it doesn't pass a budget.
Not sure what Casey has done other than support some things and call for action on other things. But then, I'm not sure what any member of Congress has done other than make noise and get paid.
I'm sure not sure how a freshman Sen. Smith suddenly convinces Congress to act on the same old balanced-budget calls or redoing the tax code, let alone cutting congressional pay.
Still, it'd be nice if this race showed some life - now that it seems to be awake.
Contact John Baer at email@example.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.