WASHINGTON -- Rep. Joe Sestak's attacks on Sen. Arlen Specter leading up to Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial primary have consistently focused on whether Mr. Specter is a true Democrat, as he spent the past four decades as a Republican.
Yet Mr. Sestak, a second-term Delaware County congressman and favorite of progressives, sounded much like a Republican this week in discussing Afghanistan, attacking President Barack Obama for committing in advance to a pullout date after his 30,000-troop surge.
And Mr. Specter, who has spent his career as a centrist, sounded like a left-winger in declaring the need to get out of Afghanistan and comparing it to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam.
"It is a bit of a role reversal, isn't it?" said Muhlenberg College political scientist and pollster Christopher Borick in Allentown. But it's not particularly surprising, Dr. Borick added, given the men's backgrounds and the political landscape they face ahead of the May 18 primary.
Mr. Specter, even as a Republican, was a skeptic and critic of the Iraq war. He voted to give then-President George W. Bush the power to invade, but raised questions about the supposed threat in 2002 and later spoke out against the 2007 troop surge.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Specter said he met with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but was unconvinced that Afghanistan is crucial to U.S. national security and that Hamid Karzai's government could become a stable partner.
"If Afghanistan was indispensable in the war against al-Qaida, I would support it," said Mr. Specter, who switched parties in April. "But it appears to me that al-Qaida can organize anywhere. They're in Yemen. They're in Somalia. And historically, Afghanistan has been unwinnable. ... [Obama] says that Karzai's inaugural speech is a good step in the right direction. Well, that is much too vague to have any real reliability."
Mr. Sestak said he reached his conclusion through similar study and consultations, as well as personal experience.
The former Navy rear admiral served on former President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, directed the Navy's anti-terrorism unit after Sept. 11, 2001, and served briefly in Afghanistan. Mr. Sestak left the Navy in early 2006 amid friction with top leaders.
Mr. Sestak said he determined that the threat of a destabilized, nuclear-armed Pakistan is why the United States should be committed to fighting in Afghanistan. He said U.S. forces are essential to disrupt al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions and pin the terrorist network down, as the Pakistani army launches an offensive from the other side. He said he worries that Pakistanis will see Mr. Obama's planned summer 2011 withdrawal as a sign that they will be abandoned in the fight.
Mr. Sestak thinks the effort should take three to five more years. "That's why I've asked for an exit strategy that has benchmarks for success and failure, that lets us measure whether we're being successful," he said in an interview.
Though it could help with centrists, the view could hinder Mr. Sestak's success against Mr. Specter, especially with progressive Democrats who have formed much of his base so far -- and who are most likely to turn out in a Democratic primary.
"This is going to be politically difficult, I recognize that," Mr. Sestak said. "But it's the right thing for me to tell them what I believe. I came to this with conviction, and my background has trained me for this."
It taps into an argument that Mr. Sestak has maintained against Mr. Specter -- that the five-term senator will do anything to win, and all his positions are politically motivated.
Mr. Specter brushed that off yesterday, saying: "Anything I do, he's going to criticize; it comes with the territory."
In the eyes of Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, Mr. Specter will win this argument politically.
Mr. Sestak, who is already lagging well behind the establishment-backed incumbent in fund-raising, could lose the financial support of the nationwide progressive movement. And Mr. Specter is taking the opportunity to prove himself to the base of a party he's still getting to know.
Ms. Duffy projects the race as a toss-up because "whoever gets to the general [election] is going to get there limping" for a likely race against Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman. But she said Mr. Specter still has the edge in the primary. "[If Mr. Specter] keeps doing things like this, these votes, I think the base comes around," she said.
"That actually plays into a much bigger argument that Sestak makes about Specter, that everything is a grand political calculation. But unlike other parts of the argument he makes, [Afghanistan] hits home pretty big with the base, and they may not care."
Daniel Malloy can be reached at email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.