Specter: The man in the middle

Will his moderate stances finally catch up to him?

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Surely, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has seen this movie before.

Last week, he rode to the rescue of Democrats, delivering a critical vote on the $787 billion economic stimulus package -- thus ensuring a posse of the state's conservatives will go after him in next year's GOP primary.

It's a script that has played out again and again in the rough-and-tumble career of one of the Senate's last Republican moderates, a tough, crafty and unpredictable political survivor who is seeking a sixth term in 2010, when he will be 80 years old.

He tacks left, he tacks right. He has dodged bullets from pro-lifers unhappy with his stand on abortion and women's groups unhappy with his pummeling of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

He voted against President Barack Obama's Treasury nominee Tim Geithner -- after first saying he'd vote for him -- because after further research he wasn't convinced by Mr. Geithner's account of events concerning his taxes.

He voted for Mr. Obama's Justice nominee Eric Holder -- after attacking him in a hearing -- because he was impressed by strong recommendations Mr. Holder received from former FBI director Louis Freeh and former Justice Department official James Comey.

Now, he's ducking fire from conservatives outraged that Mr. Specter helped Mr. Obama, a Democrat, achieve his first big victory on Capitol Hill, an act labeled "the ultimate act of treason," by one Republican operative.

Mr. Specter said he had no choice but to do what he did, given the country's dire economic straits.

"I didn't relish the job of being a negotiator," said the man considered one of Capitol Hill's most able -- and eager -- dealmakers. "I was waiting for someone in the Republican leadership to step forward," and when they didn't, he had to act, he said.

"This is the best we could do," he said of the stimulus package, noting that it was supported by "a strong conservative group" -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Other conservatives, though, aren't buying it, and they're asking: Will 2010 be the year Mr. Specter is finally knocked off his horse?

"He's more vulnerable now than he's ever been," said former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, who would know, considering that he came within two points of beating Mr. Specter in the 2004 GOP Senate primary. Now president of the conservative group Club for Growth, Mr. Toomey said he may run for governor in 2010.

Mr. Specter's vote for the stimulus last week was "the ultimate act of treason," said Nachama Soloveichik, the Club's communications director, while several national Republican groups, including the National Republican Trust Fund PAC, declared him a marked man.

Mr. Toomey sounded somewhat more temperate in an interview Friday about Mr. Specter's prospects, a reflection, perhaps, of the incumbent's acknowledged prowess in winning tough re-election campaigns.

"It depends on the strength of the challenger," he said, "but Mr. Specter's voting record reflects someone who is more comfortable with the Democrats than with the Republicans."

There are other signs, however, that Mr. Specter is in for a rougher ride than usual:

• A Quinnipiac Poll last week of Pennsylvanians yielded high approval ratings for Mr. Specter, but respondents were split on whether he should run for re-election.

• About 239,000 Pennsylvania voters, most of them likely Republicans, switched to the Democratic party in 2008, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. That means that the GOP voters in the Senate primary next year will be more conservative, and thus less inclined to back Mr. Specter.

• In the general election, a newly bulked-up Democratic electorate -- with a 1.2 million- voter registration advantage over Republicans, more than double the margin from May 2006 -- will no doubt help the Democratic candidate.

• This spring, Mr. Specter faces a vote on an important labor issue that will surely end up angering key constituencies in both parties. The Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check" legislation, may come up for a Senate vote in April.

The bill, which would make it easier to organize workers, is labor's top priority and considered anathema by the business community, which claims it would eliminate the right to a secret ballot. Most political experts say labor, which has supported Mr. Specter in his past two re-election bids, has to be behind him in order for him to win in the general election.

"Arlen Specter will not be our candidate in 2010 if he doesn't support an opportunity for Americans to have free elections in the workplace," said Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, who added if Mr. Specter wins his union's endorsement he expects a lot of labor members to cross over in the Republican primary to vote for him.

The business community is divided over the stimulus package, "with a lot of small businesses supporting it," said Republican political consultant John Brabender. That's not the case with card check.

"That issue could really get him in hot water with the business community and bring on a very serious challenge."

It's not clear, though, who that challenger would be, and if Mr. Specter knows, he's not saying.

"I make it a point never to mention my opponents' names," he said. "As Satchel Paige once said, 'I never look over my shoulder because someone may be gaining on me.' "

Indeed, Mr. Specter said he's fully aware of the political risks he's facing in next year's primary.

"I'm going to deal with it as best I can," he said. "I'm trying to get people to change back and be Republicans."

He's benefiting, somewhat, from the lack of a "killer candidate" in either party. On the Democratic side, TV pundit Chris Matthews bowed out and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz is unlikely to give up her seniority in the House to take a shot at Mr. Specter. Jack Wagner, Pennsylvania's auditor general and a conservative Democrat, is said to be undecided about running for governor or senator. Joe Torsella, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor, congressional candidate and past head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, announced he's running, and while he has experience in raising money, his name recognition is almost nil.

On the Republican side, Glen Meakem of Sewickley, the multimillionaire CEO of the former Internet firm FreeMarkets and a conservative radio talk show host, warned he may challenge Mr. Specter next year, but he, too, suffers from lack of name recognition. Peg Luksik, an anti-abortion activist and former gubernatorial candidate, is also thinking about a challenge.

Mr. Specter seems determined to match Mr. Meakem or anyone else, dollar for dollar, vowing to raise $30 million. He's currently sitting on $5.8 million in cash and in the last three months of 2008 alone raised $611,000. His biggest donors, moreover, represent the same constituencies that Democrats would need to fund a strong candidate: women, labor and Jewish groups.

Still, there's the matter of Mr. Specter's age and health. On Thursday, he turned 79, and he is a cancer survivor.

"What those factors mean in the long run is anybody's guess," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, "but you can't rule them out in this election."

A number of Democratic operatives suggested that if the going gets too rough, Mr. Specter might be persuaded to switch parties -- after all, he began his political career as a Democrat. Mr. George of the AFL-CIO said he has been urging Mr. Specter to do that, only to be laughed off by the senator.

It has been said that much national Democratic money and manpower will be poured into this race, given the party's desire to get 60 filibuster-proof votes in the Senate. But Mr. Specter's key role this week may pay some dividends down the road.

"I don't see the president of the United States saying, after Arlen Specter saved his economic package for him, 'Oh, thanks, Arlen -- and by the way we don't think you're fit to be senator.' That vote will protect him from an onslaught of Democratic money in the race," said Tony May, a public relations consultant in Harrisburg and longtime Democratic political operative.

Peter Hart, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster for Democratic candidates, isn't so sure.

"We've seen this sort of thing happen enough over history, and you want to get all the Democratic seats you can," he said. But more importantly, "this was a move aimed squarely at the voters of Pennsylvania, a free vote, because no challenger who's a Democrat is going to be able to use it against him."

As another pivotal, defining moment approaches in a lifetime of such defining moments, Mr. Specter will stay the course -- which in the former Philadelphia prosecutor's lexicon means plenty of zigzagging. Observers predict he'll tack to the right again for much of 2009, while tacking left as the 2010 election approaches, relishing his role as dealmaker and man in the middle of the action, rather than in the margins of the left or right.

Mr. Specter bristled, however, at the notion that he was any kind of a triangulator -- a term frequently used to describe him in the blogosphere. "You must be confusing me with former President Bill Clinton," he chortled.

His switch on Mr. Geithner, for example, came because "I'm fact-oriented," he said. "I read the [newspaper] accounts and found they were wrong," he said, adding that he spent a lot of time researching the issue of whether Mr. Geithner had failed to pay self-employment taxes over a four-year period."

"When people ask me about [them], sometimes they're impressed that I know more about Geithner than anybody else." he said.

"People value my independence," he added. "Remember, I've cast more than 10,000 votes in my career. At the end of the rainbow, perhaps people will vote for me even if they're unhappy with some of those votes. They don't agree with all of my votes -- and neither do I."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 25, 2009) This story about Sen. Arlen Specter as originally published Feb. 15, 2009 erroneously quoted him, in reference to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, as saying "Sometimes I'm impressed I know as much about Geithner as I do." Mr. Specter actually said: "When people ask me about [them], sometimes they're impressed that I know more about Geithner than anybody else."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 15, 2009) This story as originally published Feb. 15, 2009 reported in error that the Commonwealth Foundation was "a national Republican group" targeting Sen. Specter in the next election for his vote on the stimulus plan. While the Foundation did condemn Mr. Specter's vote, it is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan public policy education and research institute focused on economic policies in Pennsylvania. It does not engage in electoral politics at either the state or federal levels.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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