NOW THAT the primary election is history, let's look to more promising political battles, such as the 2012 Senate race featuring freshman Senator Bob Casey Jr.

Yep, he's still around - and running again.

Some national pundits see Casey's seat as somewhat at risk, no doubt due to the drubbing that Pennsylvania Democrats took last year, losing a Senate seat, the governor's race, four Democratic congressional seats and control of the state House.

So, despite the Casey name being a brand since the '60s, when his father first was elected state auditor general, and despite Casey vanquishing Rick Santorum by a stunning 17 points in '06, Republicans rumble about taking Casey out.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee does routine Bob bashing.

This week, when the government hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit, committee spokesman Chris Bond issued a statement: "What exactly has Bob Casey been doing in Washington, besides helping President Obama max out the taxpayer credit card on the backs of Pennsylvania families?"

Casey's office says that he's been pushing people-issues, such as mortgage counseling and foreclosure prevention, tax credits to create jobs and middle-income tax cuts.

Still, with 23 Democratic seats up next year, Republicans are pressing. They need win only four races, assuming they hold their own, to win Senate control.

Prognosticators suggest that nine or 10 of those are "solid" Democratic, but list as many as 10 as "tossups." Pennsylvania is mostly listed as "likely" Democratic.

Rasmussen Reports in January called Casey "potentially vulnerable." The Rothenberg Political Report lists Pennsylvania as "Democrat-favored." The University of Virginia's Larry Sabato lists Casey as "potentially vulnerable" but calls the outcome "likely D," as does The Cook Political Report.

Still, GOP state party boss Rob Gleason assures me that Casey's in for a fight: "I think he's very vulnerable and his polling numbers show it."

Actually, public polling is mixed.

A Franklin & Marshall College Poll in March said that only 25 percent of respondents hold "strongly favorable" or "somewhat favorable" opinions of Casey, his lowest such number in nine F&M polls dating back to February '09.

But in April, Public Policy Polling put Casey's approval rating at 39 percent, and a Quinnipiac Poll said it's 44 percent.

These are not strong numbers for an incumbent, but there's no visible campaign yet and no opponent.

It's unclear who emerges to challenge Casey. Names such as Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker seem unlikely. A few GOP congressmen - Pittsburgh's Tim Murphy, Allentown's Charlie Dent, Chester County's Jim Gerlach - are mentioned. And state Sen. Jake Corman, of Centre County, voices interest.

There's some buzz about North Philly Evangelical Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins, who also heads the pro-school voucher group Students First and who ran in the '94 GOP Senate primary, losing to Santorum.

Watkins, 57, tells me, "It's not something I've considered seriously." But he doesn't say he won't do so.

The National Journal reported in March that multimillionaire sports-store magnate Edward W. Stack, 56, is talking with GOP honchos about a possible run.

Stack heads Pittsburgh-based Dick's Sporting Goods Inc., a 320-plus retail-store chain founded by his father in 1948. His company this week announced that its first-quarter net income rose an impressive 43 percent. A call to a company spokesman about Stack's possible candidacy was not immediately returned.

Who knows where the economy is next year? Who knows what issues drive the race? But a few things suggest Casey is tough to unseat.

He's running with Obama, who'll pull big numbers out of Philly and its suburbs, certainly benefiting Casey; his pro-life/pro-gun stands are popular in western Pennsylvania, and neither he nor his father ever lost a general election.

It's a long way off. Anything can happen. But today, the 2012 Senate race looks, well, likely Casey.

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