Specter, Sestak focus on getting out the vote

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WASHINGTON -- In the final days of the Spandex-tight Senate Democratic primary race, ground operations focusing on voter turnout are crucial.

And that's one area in which Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., despite his flagging poll numbers, will have a likely advantage over his rival, Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Delaware County.

After switching parties last year, Mr. Specter earned the support of the national and Pennsylvania Democratic establishment along with labor unions. Combined with his extensive familiarity with the state's political apparatus from a lifetime mounting campaigns statewide and in Philadelphia, Mr. Specter, 80, knows how to run a ground game.

"He knows the state; he's done this before," said Chris Borick, professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College whose daily tracking polls show the race as a dead heat.

"He's got the advantage of support from a lot of people, including [Gov.] Ed Rendell -- who knows how to do the [get out the vote] work very well. So I think if its close on Election Day, we don't know -- we have no idea what Joe Sestak has in terms of an organization to get out the vote. He just hasn't done it."

Sestak campaign spokesman Jonathon Dworkin boasted of the campaign's 10 statewide offices and more than 5,000 volunteers as providing a more than adequate ground operation.

"People have been talking about [Mr. Specter's party infrastructure support] since about a year ago, probably, and I think you see that Democrats in Pennsylvania, while certainly acknowledging and respecting the establishment, this is a democratic party, a grassroots party," Mr. Dworkin said. "And people have been energized by someone who is a Democrat out of principle and not out of convenience."

The efforts will center on Philadelphia -- where a large portion of Democratic voters live and where Mr. Specter's political roots trace back to his 1965 campaign for district attorney. G. Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, said Mr. Specter's task will be to raise turnout beyond the liberal base that typically turns out for primaries -- and would be most disturbed by voting for a former Republican -- and reach a wider group that came out for President Barack Obama in 2008.

"He's got to get the turnout up to about the mid-40s, and he's especially got to win Philadelphia, where he holds the lead in every poll," Mr. Madonna said.

"And that is the huge task because Philly turnout is abysmal in primary midterm elections."

Mr. Specter will have considerable allies in his quest.

AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman said the organization is reaching out to union households through mailers and phone calls, including an automatic call from union President Richard Trumka urging a vote for Mr. Specter. The union coalition has more than 900,000 members in the state.

"There's been a longtime relationship with Specter," Ms. Ackerman said.

The Service Employees International Union, which boasts about 100,000 members across the state, is sending 60 to 70 volunteers out knocking on doors and calling union members Saturday, said Jessica Walls, SEIU spokeswoman for Pennsylvania. In addition, the union sent out a mailer showing a smiling Mr. Specter with SEIU members.

Mr. Specter also will have assistance from the state Democratic Party and Organizing for America, the grassroots arm of the Democratic National Committee that was built from the Obama campaign e-mail list.

"Wherever those groups can help they are put into the effort and integrated into it," said Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas. "So it's really all hands on deck and everyone's been helping out."

Last weekend, Mr. Nicholas said, Specter supporters knocked on about 4,500 doors in Allegheny County and 23,000 doors in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.

In a brief interview this week, Mr. Specter acknowledged the importance of those voter contact efforts as he tries to squeak out another tight race.

"I've been in a lot of close races, and I keep slugging," Mr. Specter said. "And my point is if the people who want me to be re-elected come out and vote, I'll win. But it's a matter of turnout."


Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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