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Campaign 2010: U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter

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By Dan Hirschhorn

The political universe worked itself into tizzy on that day last April when U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, Philadelphia political icon of four decades, decided to switch parties from Republican to Democrat.  It seemed he was doing the unthinkable - and unforgivable to many in the GOP.

Specter had no choice, really. Every public and private poll showed him losing the 2010 Republican primary to former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, the man who almost took his job 2004. And if there is one thing Arlen Specter likes, it's his job.

He acknowledged as much in making his announcement, doing nothing to hide the political calculation of switching from "R" to "D" to avoid a primary contest where he chances of winning were, in his own words, "bleak."

Franklin and Marshall Pollster G. Terry Madonna said it was a cunning move that  "unsettles the politics of the state in ways that few political decisions in modern history have."

Arlen Specter 2.jpg President Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell voiced their enthusiastic support for Specter. Democrats who had planned to run against Specter dropped their plans at the sight of his new, powerful allies in the White House and the state capital. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who had himself considered running against Specter, seemed to encapsulate the excitement, when he asked simply: "Didn't he just win re-election today?"

As it turns out, he did not. Not by a long shot.

The days immediately after the party switch may have been the high point of the Specter re-election campaign.

 

Challenging times 

The nine months since the party switch have been among the most challenging of Specter's long career - a career that has taken him from being Philadelphia's District Attorney, to failed runs for mayor, governor and president, to 29 years in the U.S. Senate.

His plans for cruising to the Democratic nomination have been stymied by Joe Sestak, a former Navy Admiral and second-term congressman from Delaware County, who is mounting a well-financed campaign against the incumbent.

Specter's political problems are manifold.

His handling of his political defection, praised by some analysts at the time, appears to have rubbed voters the wrong way, causing his approval ratings to slide -- slowly but surely -- to the point that recent polls show that less than a third of voters think he deserves a sixth term. And Sestak's refusal to abandon the field has continued to complicate matters, forcing Specter to take steps convince Democratic voters that he'll be a reliable soldier.

As a Republican, Specter often had to tack right in re-election years to satisfy the conservatives who show up in great numbers in GOP primaries.  This year, he has had to tack left to appeal to the liberal Democrats who predominate as primary voters. The jury is out on whether he has convinced them that his conversion was sincere.

In Sestak, Specter faces a youthful, photogenic, liberal, suburban Democrat with a great story to tell as a West Point graduate, a Naval warrior and Pentagon leader in the Clinton administration.

And he faces Democratic voters who seem as uncomfortable with his party switch as Republicans were angered. He has the ancillary - often unspoken - issues of his age (he will be 80 this year) and his health problems, which have left him looking his age.

In sum, the odds against Specter winning re-election are formidable.  A good bet is that he could lose to Sestak in the Democratic primary or to Toomey, the likely Republican nominee, in the 2010 general election.

All that said, the phrase "Don't bet against Specter" is a common refrain among politicos in both parties, who respect his abilities as a fundraiser, a tireless campaigner and as a survivor. Specter always has been -- always will be -- relentless in seeking his goal of re-election.

 

Specter a survivor

But the outlook for Specter still looks bleak and the needle he has to thread to win re-election is a difficult one.

The deals Specter thought he had when he switched parties unraveled almost as quickly as he made them. The hope that he'd retain his seniority in the senate ended with him as the state's junior senator. Plans for a strong endorsement from the state's Democratic congressional delegation went nowhere. His desire for an uncontested primary in 2010 ran headlong into Sestak's ambition.

Sestak's presence in the race has forced Specter into some sudden policy shifts, even by the standards of a man who has made occupying the political middle-ground his life's work. While he said in the days following his party-switch that he didn't support a public option for health insurance, he soon found himself advocating for a "robust" public option. After he wrote to a constituent last fall to say that it wasn't time to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, he found himself rolling out a repeal initiative only weeks later.

"Senator Specter's not a dumb man," Democratic political consulting David Dunphy said. "He's a survivor."

Through it all, Specter seemed to become the spitting image of the "reliable" Democrat he said he wouldn't be. He's endorsed, campaigned and helped raise money for members of his new party, leveraging his encyclopedic knowledge of the state to impress his new colleagues and unify establishment Democrats behind him. And whatever has gone on, his optimism has never faded, a dynamic underscored by his explanation of the rocky aftermath of the switch.

"There are a few bumps in the road," he admitted last spring. "But I've got good shock absorption."
He will need those shock absorbers  in the months to come. With the vast majority of voters already having formed an opinion about their longtime senator, there's little Specter can do to change how they picture him, even with the millions in campaign cash he'll have at his disposal. And should Specter survive a primary against Sestak, the drastic moves to the left he's been forced to make will only serve to underscore Toomey's message that Specter is an opportunist who will say or do anything to win.

Now, a look at some Specter positives.

For Obama, embracing Specter was in large part a pragmatic decision rooted in the need to pass health care reform, and in this avenue, no one can deny Specter has delivered. With unified Republican opposition, Specter can truthfully tell primary voters that whatever health care bill eventually passes would have died without him, just like the economic stimulus package would have withered without his support when he was still in the GOP. If the economy begins to show signs of a sustained rebound, Specter will benefit - against both Sestak and Toomey.

And nobody knows the ins-and-outs of the state's 67 counties the way Specter does. He's been running statewide since the 1970's, delivering his message - and occasionally checks for local projects. 

The fact that no one wants to bet against Specter -- even at what seems a low-point of his electoral viability -- illuminates the power of his political persona. He has had these near-death experiences before, only to somehow pull it out.

"Like Houdini," says Madonna, "Specter always manages to escape."

 

Read: Joe Sestak, Specter's opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary

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